Legislators aim to fix school funding for struggling districts

In the wake of the McCleary decision and a new statewide K-12 funding system designed to direct billions more dollars for education, more than 100 school districts in Washington State — including several on Grays Harbor — will be left with less money for basic operations in the 2019-20 school year than they would have had under the old system, according to an analysis by the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA).

As a result of the McCleary decision — which was intended to make it so the state fully funds basic education instead of a reliance on local funding — many rural school districts, such as Aberdeen, say they have to make significant budget cuts and layoffs just to maintain their basic programs. The new funding model went into effect in January.

In a press release from WASA, it lists the 115 school districts out of 295 most severely hurt by the new funding model, which includes Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Montesano, Ocosta, Elma, Wishkah, Lake Quinault and Willapa Valley. Joel Aune, WASA’s executive director, said that nearly all of the 295 school districts have experienced some kind of negative impact by the new funding model.

One question is how state legislators can help fix the financial struggles districts face, and a couple state representatives told The Daily World about bills and possible budget adjustments to address the issue before the legislative session ends.

Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia, said legislators are working on a bill in the Senate that would expand the capped amount of local tax levies past $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value. Senate Bill 5313, which is currently under review in the Senate, would make it so school districts could choose between a levy lid of either 20 percent of its levy base or $3,500 per pupil.

Prior to the new funding model implemented in January and its levy cap, Aberdeen would have had a levy rate of $4.31 per $1,000 in assessed value. The levy cap cuts Aberdeen’s levy funding by 65 percent, according to the district. Dolan said this bill would be a way to put more control in the hands of local school administrators on what they can fund.

“By making the levies too tight, we actually took away any capacity for administrators to make their own local decisions on everything beyond basic education, which are a lot of things,” said Dolan. “If they want extra staffing beyond the prototypical model, or different kinds of after school activities, any kind of specialized program they want to add, they didn’t have the capacity to pay for those anymore.”

Dolan said the challenge is finding a balance between the state being in charge of funding basic education, and allowing locally elected school boards to make their own decisions for more specialized funding areas. She added the bill could be tweaked a little in the next few weeks as it moves through the Legislature.

However, some don’t believe expanding the levies is a good idea, and view it as going against the purpose of the McCleary decision by putting the requirement on local communities to fund education. Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said he opposes the bill in the Senate that would expand levies as a way to assist some districts.

“I just can’t believe (legislators) are taking it seriously, because it would get us right back into the problem of McCleary,” said Walsh. “The reason the McCleary issue started was because some schools were using local levies to augment salaries for teachers and other operating costs, and the courts said that was unconstitutional. It was too much of an advantage to real estate-rich districts and a disadvantage to real estate-poor districts.”

The Aberdeen School District’s budget advisory committee, a group of 20 community members, parents and school district staff tasked with suggesting areas to make financial cuts, was also not in favor of expanding the levies. They wrote about it in a letter published in The Daily World Feb. 9.

“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,” the committee wrote. “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.”

In terms of other areas to help school districts, Dolan and Walsh both said they were interested in securing more funding for special education in the state’s budget. Aberdeen’s budget advisory committee said in January it was “strongly in favor” in making reductions to special education, which currently takes up about half of the district’s levy funds, they said.

Another potential change, Dolan said, was adding more state funding for health care benefits for school employees not covered previously by the state, such as bus drivers and food servers.

Walsh said he’s interested in revising the state’s “regionalization factor,” which directs more state funding to some areas, based on the cost of living, to lower the requirement so some local school districts get additional funding.

WASA, which is a group of more than 1,600 school administrators in the state, sent a statement to legislators proposing their own changes to help struggling the school districts they analyzed. The statement proposes adjusting Senate Bill 6362, which addressed the McCleary decision, so it complies with its “hold harmless” provision, and makes it so school districts aren’t going backwards financially with the new K-12 funding model. The group proposes adding state funding to help the 115 worst-off districts for the short-term future, to a financial “break-even” point as groups work to find a more long-term fix. The group’s other proposal is to expand the state’s “experience factor” criteria.

As it stands, districts receive 4 percent more in state funding if they have a certain percentage of experienced teachers. In an interview, Aune said a lot of school districts had a high number of experienced teachers, but didn’t meet the criteria for the experience factor funding. WASA’s statement asks that legislators expand the experience factor to districts that exceed the statewide average for teacher years of experience by 15 percent.

However, some Grays Harbor County school districts, such as Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Ocosta and Elma, still would not receive the experience factor money under the new criteria, according to WASA’s report.

Dolan noted that she prefers to focus on longterm fixes for school districts struggling financially, and said legislators have the capacity to make those longterm changes now.

Walsh said he’s been frustrated with previous conversations with officials to understand how the experience factor’s formula works, and wants to revise it either through the Legislature or through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.