State not done fixing K-12 school funding

The dispute over adequate funding of public schools is not over in Washington. It may take further prodding by the state Supreme Court to keep legislators’ feet to the fire for another round.

It is necessary.

“I think people need to know that the state is not fully funding education,” North Thurston Superintendent Deb Clemens told The Olympian Editorial Board last week in a meeting joined by superintendents from Olympia and Tumwater schools. “The state funded formulas. But the funds we are designated … (do not) cover our costs.”

Olympia Superintendent Patrick Murphy said that his district goes over a funding “cliff” in 2019-20.

And Tumwater Superintendent John Bash said his district is gradually losing some $7.25 million in school levy funds per school year over the 2017-2020 period. This wipes out most of the increase he expects to see in state funding.

The predicted allocation of state and local funds for Tumwater goes from about $78.1 million in 2017-18 to about $83.6 million in the 2018-19 school year. But that state and local support literally drops in 2019-20 to $81.7 million, based on estimates from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction that Bash cited.

Even so, schools, teachers, students and parents should be in good shape for the short term. All three school superintendents say the Legislature increased funding just enough in 2017 and then in March that they can cover their costs for the fall school year.

Until legislators found another $1 billion this year for schools, some districts had worried there could be staffing cuts.

But layoffs are off the table this year for North Thurston, Olympia and Tumwater schools, the superintendents said.

That is possible mainly because districts intend to keep using local property tax levies and reserves to cover gaps in state funding for teacher pay and for shortfalls in special education funding for the next school year.

Still our Legislature is not off the hook for fully funding K-12 schools under terms of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, first decided in 2012.

Plaintiffs for the McCleary family, which sued to get full funding of their children’s schools a full decade ago, are still asking through their attorney for the court to keep jurisdiction of the case. This could keep pressure on lawmakers to follow through with ample funds in 2019, if not before.

Predicted financial shortfalls for schools are nothing new. Cynics might say it is a negotiating stance that works for districts.

But this time the shortfalls come after full funding of schools was supposed to be assured.

One reason for the shortfall is the way lawmakers chose to raise funds for schools, which they did commendably to the tune of some $4 billion over several years at the state level.

At the same time the Legislature cut local school levy support and changed the way the state sends money to school districts to cover teacher salary increases. Salaries are a major cost of education, and districts with more experienced teachers expect to come up short by millions of dollars.

The salary problem results because new salary-allocation formulas are based on a statewide average for pay. This penalizes districts that have more experienced and more expensive teachers, including Olympia.

Tumwater is doubly hit. It did not receive an extra “regionalization” bonus that went to more than 90 school districts statewide, many in central Puget Sound where housing costs are very high, the superintendents explained.

North Thurston receives a temporary boost in funds through a regionalization factor, because it is close to Tacoma. But that extra cash help fades away in a few years.

Olympia gets a smaller temporary boost thanks to work by local lawmakers to sweeten the state funding formulas in the supplemental budget.

Legislators also failed to fully pay the local costs of special education.

The state’s high court still has to review the Legislature’s latest progress or decide if the latest increase in state funds this year for salaries is enough to declare that Washington finally is paying the all of the real costs of basic education.

At this point it’s also unclear how far the state’s new allocation for salaries can stretch.

But the Washington Education Association, which represents teachers and many other school employees statewide, is urging its locals to pressure school districts for substantial pay hikes this fall.

Substantial raises this year are neither sustainable nor possible in school districts that have ample funds for this school year but face a revenue drop in two years.

This could get messy.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This was revised to clarify that Superintendent Bash was referring to combined state and local funding for Tumwater schools.