Aberdeen schools concerned for financial future under new state policies and teachers looking for raises

The Legislature has approved new state funding practices taking effect in 2019 and designed to put more money into education, but Aberdeen school officials say the way things shake out, it will be difficult to maintain all their operations in future years.

During an Aberdeen School Board budget workshop on Saturday, Aberdeen school finance director Elyssa Louderback and Superintendent Alicia Henderson detailed why they believe new state funding policies may cause a serious financial hit to the district.

According to the district’s draft 2018-19 budget, there will be about $5 million in additional state funding, but school officials say there are strict restrictions on how that money is used, and the extra money is outweighed by inflation and reductions in local funding caused by new rules for school levies.

The extra funding and new funding formula comes about as a result of the McCleary case in which the state was sued for not meeting its constitutionally mandated order to provide basic education as a paramount duty.

Watching closely as schools receive additional revenue from the state, will be teachers expecting pay increases.

The Aberdeen Education Association (AEA), the teacher’s union, has been in bargaining meetings with district officials. Several teachers told The Daily World they are hoping to get a significant raise for district educators.

“The state has provided the funding, now it is up to the district to meet the McCleary promise by paying the kind of professional wages our members deserve and which will keep them working in Aberdeen,” AEA President Michelle Reed wrote in an email to The Daily World.

Reed said the Legislature and state Supreme Court were “very clear” that the added state funding is intended to be for educator pay, and to “make up for years of stagnant wages eaten away by rising costs.”

But after transitioning to the new policies in January 2019, the district estimates they’ll see their year-end fund balance reduce steadily, eventually resulting in a negative balance by the 2021 school year.

In the current system, Henderson said, state funding is based totally on student enrollment. In the future it would be based on enrollment and teachers’ education and experience, and the cost of living in the district.

“There’s a pretty big disconnect between the state’s assumed staffing needs for a school district of our size, based on enrollment,” Henderson said.

If a district has a small number of students, the state will pay for a relative amount of teachers that they identify as meeting the need of that area.

For example, according to a district Powerpoint presentation, the state will now allocate enough money to pay for .51 nurses, which means about half of the annual salary of a full-time nurse, even though the district currently has the equivalent of more than three full-time nurses.

“I’m trying to calm myself,” Board President Sandra Bielski said in response to this statistic.

The same reduction goes for teachers and counselors, as the state will be funding a smaller number of positions than what the district currently has.

Another major change is a cap on local levy revenue, which the district relies on to pay for supplemental staff and extracurriculars such as sports and music. In 2017, district voters approved a levy rate of $4.31 for every $1,000 worth of real property. Beginning in January 2019, that rate would have to be cut to $1.50 per $1,000 in value.

The district will be able to collect its full $4.31 tax until the end of December 2018, when the state policies go into effect.

Even though the district has a draft budget for the upcoming school year, Henderson and the other board members are unsure how they will make up for the reduced local funding.

Louderback and Henderson added that many districts in Washington face the same challenges, although some will benefit. In districts where there’s a high residential cost, it results in anywhere from 6 to 24 percent in more allocated state funding.

There’s also 4 percent more funding going to the districts that have a certain percentage of “experienced” teachers. Because districts like Montesano and Elma have a higher percentage of teachers with more years of experience or more education than Aberdeen does, they get a significant boost to funding,

For the 2018-19 school year, the district agreed with various unions to raise salaries anywhere from 5 to 10 percent.

More than a dozen teachers came to Saturday’s workshop, most of whom were wearing their red AEA shirts. A couple said after the workshop that they suspect the state funding situation isn’t as dire as administrators claim.

“I know the finance people for the Washington Education Association have been talking to the district, saying their projections are completely different,” said Mika Katzer, a teacher at Aberdeen High School.

Jody Charters, another teacher, said the teacher’s union was upset that administrators received a 3 percent salary increase for the upcoming school year.

“If we’re really having all these budget problems, then why did they (receive) a raise?” said Charters.

During the workshop’s comment period, Katzer said she’s concerned the school has recently hired teachers from a teacher training program instead of paying more for certificated and more qualified staff.

“Is it going to be a pattern of, ‘Because we can’t find anybody, let’s hire someone from the program?’” Katzer said. “It might be the cheaper way to solve problems, but quality-wise, I feel that’s not benefiting students or the rest of the staff.”

Assistant Superintendent Jim Sawin responded by saying most of the candidates they interviewed from any source recently weren’t certificated, and that the few that were didn’t seem like the best candidates.

Superintendent Alicia Henderson said she looks forward to meeting with AEA more to “ensure we compensate all our staff very competitively.”