State school ‘fix’ made things worse for districts such as Aberdeen

Dear members of the Aberdeen School District community:

Our school district is reducing expenditures by 2 percent this year ($1 million) and is planning for a 7 percent ($3.5 million) reduction in 2019-20 due to the inequities under the state’s new funding model for education. This is a funding crisis. People who do valuable work in our schools are going to lose their jobs.

Last year, the courts found that the Legislature had “fully funded” education as required by the state Supreme Court in the McCleary Decision. This is the famous case in our state in which the court ordered the Legislature to meet its constitutional duty to provide for basic education. Last year, after the Legislature pumped more than $1 billion new dollars into education, the case was closed.

The problem is that our district is not fairly funded under the McCleary fix. In fact, an analysis by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction puts Aberdeen in the top 10 of districts experiencing severe revenue challenges under the new funding model.

To help grapple with the complexities, the Aberdeen School District created a Budget Advisory Committee comprised of community members, parents, staff and representation from employee bargaining groups, to learn about the new funding model and explore areas for reductions.

On Jan. 23, three committee members — Patrick Farwell, Kris Koski and Debbi Ross — along with School Board Director William Dyer, traveled to Olympia to share with lawmakers the budget crisis that has developed in Aberdeen as a result of the McCleary fix.

The message to lawmakers is that additional revenue is needed immediately to prevent loss of programs, layoffs and erosion to the quality of education for our young people. The major reasons for this are outlined below.

No “experience factor”: Aberdeen has an experienced staff. Almost 53 percent of our teachers have more than 15 years of experience and are near the top of the salary range — yet Aberdeen was not among the districts that received 4 percent more in state funding for the experience factor.

No “regionalization factor”: Aberdeen experiences difficulty recruiting and retaining quality teachers and works to overcome this challenge by offering competitive salaries. Districts in affluent, high-cost areas received additional state funding to attract teachers, leaving Aberdeen to pay similar salaries without the extra funding. Some districts receive up to 24 percent more than Aberdeen!

Underfunded special education: Aberdeen is more underfunded than most districts in our state due to a high percentage of special needs students. Our local tax dollars have been used to make up the difference. These dollars have not been replaced with state dollars.

High local levy: Aberdeen is facing one of the steepest levy cliffs in the state. The new levy cap on property tax of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value represents a 65 percent cut in our local levy from the previous tax rate of $4.31 per $1,000. The new funding model doesn’t fully replace the local dollars that were being spent.

During their trip to Olympia, the committee members shared several ideas that could help districts like Aberdeen.

Restore the staff mix factor: Before the fix, the state paid districts for teacher salaries based on the mix of experience, not just one rate regardless of where staff are placed on the salary schedule.

Provide more funding for special education: As stated previously, special education is underfunded.

Fully fund employee benefits: The committee asked lawmakers to please ensure that the new state employee benefit system is fully funded. As things stand, Aberdeen is facing an estimated $1 million increase in benefit costs.

Provide more support in labor negotiations: The previous Legislature did away with the statewide salary schedule and ordered districts to negotiate on their own while making no provisions to support the new collective bargaining expectation.

Fix funding for construction in rural districts: Aberdeen has a dire need to replace a 70-year-old elementary school. The bare minimum cost is $58 million to $63 million — well above our bonding capacity. Under the current state construction “match” program, Aberdeen would receive just $7.4 million in state construction funds. (By comparison, J.M. Weatherwax High School was a $53.4 million project that received $20.4 million in state construction funds.)

Fix regional funding inequities: An adjustment factor was provided for affluent areas to account for cost of living. An adjustment is needed for the additional costs associated with factors unique to districts like Aberdeen.

One “fix” that appears to be gaining favor among lawmakers is to lift the levy lid above $1.50 per $1,000 so districts can collect more in local funds. This proposal does not help districts like Aberdeen. The whole point of the McCleary Decision was for the state to accept full responsibility for basic education.

When it comes to equity in education, there is no such thing as one-formula-fits-all. We hope you will join us in contacting lawmakers and asking them to come up with solutions that fairly address the unique challenges and needs of school districts like Aberdeen.

Submitted by the Aberdeen School District Budget Advisory Committee: Nicholas Barene, Sarah Teveliet Channel, Kim Edwards, Carrie Erwin, Patrick Farwell, David Glasier, Jan Gravley, Lynn Green, Kris Koski, Molly Leithold, Arnie Lewis, Kim Malizia, Debbi Ross, Richard Stallo, Mike Toy, Kasi Turner and T.J. West.