Soon, the Washington State Legislature will return to work. Returning to work on the front end of a biennium budget, some members of the legislature seem optimistic they’ll be able to complete their work on time during what is commonly referred to as a “short session.” In fact, public comments from a number of legislators suggest they believe much of their work, focused on complying with the McCleary court order to fully fund a free and appropriate basic education, was completed last summer. However, most educational leaders throughout the State would suggest otherwise…
Superintendents and business managers representing school districts across the State have been listening to the claims made by the legislature and looking at the actual numbers… And for many school districts, districts like the Methow Valley which has developed a system of exceptional teaching and learning, enhanced by innovative, student-centric, real world, community-based programs of study, focused on developing students who graduate prepared for the widest range of post-secondary options possible, the numbers don’t seem to add up.
Exceptional Teaching and Learning Supported by Methow Valley Community
Without going into great detail, there many notable examples of exceptional teaching and learning taking place within our schools. Enhanced by pockets of innovation, they are built upon a foundation of “Equity and Excellence for All.” They are a result of the strong partnership and generous support provided by our community. Some of the many examples include our collective efforts to:
- Initiate affordable, high quality early childhood education and after-school childcare/enrichment programs in support of our youngest learners, their families, and employers
- Establish a district-wide system of exceptional teaching and learning using the International Baccalaureate framework
- Enhance teaching and learning through the thoughtful application of industry standard technology
- Promote the positive attributes and attitudes associated with responsible citizenship and a healthy, inclusive, democratic society
- Initiate innovative, student-centric, community-based internships that provide students with authentic, real-world learning experience
- Initiate a community-based mentorship program focused on breaking the cycle of generational poverty
- Provide all students with access to high quality resources and materials
- Implement personalized approaches to teaching and learning through project-based learning and authentic, real-world internships
- Maintain low class sizes
- Provide high quality professional development for all staff
- Expand counseling, nursing, and special education services
- Reduce the economic burden placed on families by eliminating supply fees, course fees, many enrichment fees, and reducing pay-to-play fees
- Invest in the ongoing maintenance and improvements to our facilities
Working in partnership with our community, we are becoming what many others elsewhere increasingly refer to as the “gold standard” in public education. Unfortunately, it appears that our schools and the students we serve have been placed at risk, threatened by our own State legislature’s inability to set aside politics, work collaboratively across the aisle, and continued failure to fully fund the true cost of a free and appropriate education.
As a result, numerous districts find themselves faced with the possibility of cuts to their current staffing and programs.
Legislature Celebrates Reported 7.3 Billion Dollar Investment of New Money into Public Education, Yet Districts Across the State Plan for Cuts…
My guess is that if you’re reading this article and you’ve made it this far, you may be feeling somewhat perplexed and confused. In fact, you may be thinking to yourself, “Wait. I’m confused. Help me understand… I was told by members of the legislature that they’ve added a reported 7.3 billion dollars over the next four years in support of public education. That sounds like a lot of money. Yet, you’re telling me that a number of districts across the State are planning for potential cuts… ”
• Is that true?
Yes. In the absence of any “fixes” made to the budget during the upcoming legislative session, a number of districts across the State could be faced with making cuts to staffing and educational programs.
• How did we get here?
Immediately following passage of the State budget, members of the legislature — the same legislature that has been held in contempt by the State Supreme Court since 2014 for failing to meet its paramount duty — were quick to state they had achieved full compliance with the court’s order by increasing the State’s funding of public education by 7.3 billion dollars through a “non-voter approved” State Schools Tax of approximately $.81 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
Unfortunately, it was not until late June when the legislature, nearing the end of a third special session (at a significant cost to the taxpayer) and faced with a government shutdown, passed a “partial” budget. The State budget, absent a Capital Budget, was adopted less than 48 hours after its release to the public, providing no opportunity for educators or the public at large to review it and provide input.
Moving beyond the initial frustration associated with the lack of transparency, superintendents and school district business managers across the State have spent the last few months speaking with their local representatives and meeting with local, regional, and state budget analysts in an effort to untangle and make sense of what one legislator apologetically described as “…a complete mess.”
• You mentioned we’re receiving an increase in State funding through a non-voter approved State Schools Tax. Doesn’t that suggest districts will receive more money from the State?
Yes. Districts are scheduled to receive an increase in per pupil funding from the State. However, in our case, the increases in State funding are offset by the loss of voter-approved, local levy dollars previously approved by our community.
• How much do districts across the State anticipate losing in local levy funding?
Some estimates suggest the 7.3 billion dollars in non-voter approved funding from the State is offset by as much as a three-to-five billion dollar loss in local levy revenues over the next four years.
• Is this what I’ve heard referred to as the levy swap?
• Why is this happening?
In an effort to comply with the McCleary court order, mandating the legislature live up to its paramount duty to fully fund basic education and reduce school districts’ reliance on local levies to cover the true cost, the legislature increased funding by implementing a non-voter approved State Schools Tax.
• Did the McCleary Court order mandate an additional State Schools Tax?
No. Many have asked this same question, wondering why the legislature imposed an increase in the State Schools Tax when economic forecasts suggest increases in State revenue.
• Is it true that the “Maintenance and Operations” levy currently being used to cover a significant portion of the costs will go away with this new State Schools Tax?
Only in name… In an effort to suggest the legislature is fully funding a free and appropriate basic education, the Maintenance and Operations (M&O) levy was renamed to what is now being referred to as an “Enrichment” levy.
• Can you remind me what the M&O levy, now being referred to as the Enrichment levy, will fund?
The M&O levy (now referred to as the “Enrichment” levy) will continue to cover the gap between what the State funds and the true cost of a free and appropriate public education, including expenditures such as: educational programs, staffing, lower class sizes, athletics, and enriching activities that align with the values deeply held within our community.
• If the State is providing more funding, will districts still need “Enrichment” levies? The name makes it sound as if our schools are being fully funded…
Absolutely. Currently, nearly every one of the 295 districts across the State of Washington are dependent upon the generous support of their communities and the successful passage of their local levies. Failing to pass an “Enrichment” levy (formerly known as the M&O levy) would be catastrophic. In the Methow Valley it would result in larger class sizes and significant cuts to programs and staffing.
• Will districts be able to collect as much as they were able to previously under the new “Enrichment” levy?
It’s different for each district… Unlike the M&O levy which was calculated as a percentage of a district’s operating budget, the newly named “Enrichment” levy formula has been set at $2,500 per pupil or $1.50 per $1,000.00 of assessed property value, whichever is less.
• What does this mean for the Methow Valley School District?
In the absence of “fixes” made by the legislature, our school district, a district which possesses a relatively high assessed property valuation, resulting in one of the lowest combined school tax rates in the State, and an M&O rate that is less than $1.50 per $1,000.00 of assessed property value, we will be capped at $2,500 per pupil. As a result, beginning in January of 2019, we will NOT be able to collect the full amount of the current levy previously approved by our community.
In brief, individual taxpayers will pay more, yet our revenues will not keep pace with our planned expenditures (using conservative figures associated with mandatory costs and inflation rates). This is what is being referred to as the “levy swap.”
• Can you be more specific? How does the “levy swap” impact a district like the Methow Valley School District?
Left unchanged, it will result in a projected loss of local levy (formerly M&O, now called “Enrichment” levy) dollars by approximately $270,000 in 2018-19 and $320,000 in 2019-20.
• Can you give me a sense of what these projected losses in local levy revenues equate to in staffing and programs?
The projected cuts in local levy revenue are equivalent to 4 full-time certificated teachers.
• What else do we lose?
Local control. The replacement of voter-approved, local levy revenue with non-voter approved, State Schools Tax revenue, much of which comes in the form of “categorical” (restricted) funding, reduces the ability of school districts and the communities they serve to make informed educational programming and staffing decisions at the local level.
• Are there other issues with the current budget?
Yes. While I could identify many issues, I’ll highlight three other areas needing immediate attention. They include:
Special Education Services – State Superintendent, Chris Reykdal has suggested as much as a $130 billion dollar annual shortfall in the area of special education services. This equates to over a half-a-billion dollars over the next four years.
Regionalization Factor – Sold as a funding formula intended to account for the regional differences in housing costs and the cost of living, some districts received as much as 6 – 18% more in State funding. We were not one of them.
I, along with many other superintendents throughout the North Central region of Washington find ourselves confused at best as to how districts such as the Wenatchee School District received an increase in State funding, but the Eastmont School District in East Wenatchee did not. Further, how does the Moses Lake School District receive an increase in funding through the “Regionalization Factor,” but the Methow Valley, Chelan, and Cascade School Districts do not qualify?
Salary Allocation Model and Staff Mix Factor – The Washington Association of School Administrator’s Local Funding Workgroup, a group comprised of superintendents and professionals representing several educational associations, came together in advance of last year’s legislative session. Working together, they provided the legislature a list of funding priorities, one of which was to maintain the highly complex Salary Allocation Model and Prototypical Funding Model.
Both were thrown out and scrapped altogether and replaced with a funding formula based upon an average annual salary. This approach leaves each of our 295 school districts on their own to negotiate salaries and potentially encourages districts to hire less experienced teachers.
• Earlier, you mentioned the legislature adopted a “partial” budget. What did you mean?
The legislature failed to pass a Capital Budget.
• How does the failure of the legislature to pass the State’s Capital Budget impact school districts?
Across the State of Washington, school districts and communities are plagued with the challenge of updating and replacing an aging inventory of school facilities. Recognizing this need, many school districts and their communities have successfully passed their bonds – bonds that qualify for matching funds provided by the State’s Capital Budget.
School districts engaging in new school construction typically fund these projects using bonds and matching funds from the State’s Capital Budget. Bonds require a 60% + 1 majority of their registered voters to be approved. Historically, less than 40% pass. However, given the need, we’ve seen an increase in the percentage of bonds being passed by their communities.
Unable to set aside politics, the legislature failed to pass a Capital Budget of which approximately 1 billion dollars had been earmarked as matching funds for new school construction.
As a result, many districts across the State that have worked with their communities to successfully pass a bond and were scheduled to begin construction have been forced to put their bond projects on the back burner, purchase portables to accommodate mandated class size reduction legislation, and watch the cost of construction skyrocket.
This has forced many to take out loans (if they can find a bank willing to provide a large loan) or prepare to go back to their voters and ask for the additional funds they anticipate needing to cover the escalating costs.
This has also had a ripple effect, impacting many construction companies, their suppliers, and their employees who also find themselves being placed on hold.
• Is there anything I/We can do? Is it too late?
It’s not too late. Our local representatives serve us – tight-knit, rural communities who are committed to ensuring our children have access to an exceptional public education. I encourage you to contact your local representatives. Let them know that you want them to:
- Live up to their paramount duty to fully fund basic education by investing projected increases in State revenue into public education
- Restore local control – Extend the timeline, allowing school districts to collect the full amount of the voter-approved “Enrichment” (formerly M&O) levies until the State achieves the full funding of basic education, then schedule a gradual reduction in local levy funding
- Increase Special Education funding to ensure all students graduate with every door open
- Provide a fair and adequate compensation package for all educators across the State
- Take immediate action by passing a Capital Budget, allowing districts and communities currently on hold to move forward with voter-approved new school construction
Encourage them to set aside the politics, display the courage required to lead, and invest in public education — the future of a healthy, inclusive democratic society.