Schools waiting for one-time funding fix

Grays Harbor school districts are in line to receive more than $3.3 million in one-time funds from the passage of “hold harmless” legislation passed this session to help school districts that suffered funding losses or saw only minimal gains from the state’s current school funding model.

The one-time influx of funds will help 10 local districts. It’s a short-term fix and state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said during a stop at The Daily World offices Tuesday he has a plan to fund schools more equitably in the future.

“Hold harmless” funds

The exact numbers are still up in the air as the precise funding model is figured out, but according to the Washington State PTA, the money for local schools breaks down like this:

Aberdeen, $961,805

Hoquiam, $429,760

Montesano, $138,228

Elma, $909,653

McCleary, $125,238

Ocosta, $99,270

Quinault, $112,414

Willapa Valley, $44,874

The “hold harmless” proposal was drafted by the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) in 2018 to give temporary relief to the school districts that suffered actual funding losses under the funding model created by the Legislature after a State Supreme Court decision that forced the state to fully fund K-12 education.

Of the 10 districts most adversely impacted by the current funding model, Grays Harbor County had five.

Hoquiam Superintendent Mike Villarreal said the numbers are not set in stone; Gov. Jay Inslee had yet to sign the connected legislation – House Bill 2163 – into law as of Wednesday.

“We’re not getting a hard number yet,” said Villarreal. There are some questions remaining about the funding model, what the money can be used for, and why some districts, like Cosmopolis, will see extra funding over the next two years while others only for one year.

According to the State PTA, two schools in the region 15 that will receive funds this year and next: Cosmopolis is poised to get $423,504 in the coming school year, another $383,740 the following year; and Satsop shows $97,027 in the coming year, $38,455 the next.

Villarreal said he’s hopeful more solid numbers will be made available and some of the questions related to hold harmless funds will be answered later this month or early in June.

Villarreal will be working with his school board and other interested parties to determine the best use of the one-time funds. He wants to have a solid plan to make sure the district gets the most bang for its buck; as he said, it’s a one-time payment, and needs to be spent wisely.

“We need to find the best use for the district,” he said.

According to WASA, the “hold harmless” proposal was drafted in 2018 to address school districts that lost funding or didn’t get any significant funding gains under the McCleary legislation. There was a provision in that legislation specifically stating districts shall not lose funding under the legislation.

According to WASA, 93 districts were negatively impacted by McCleary legislation, another 22 saw “negligible” funding increases.

WASA’s proposal was for a little more than $100 million; on the last day of session, April 28, the Legislature approved $58.4 million in their 2019-21 budget.

Local legislators, including Walsh, supported the hold harmless legislation. In fact, it got wide bipartisan support in the end, passing the House of Representatives 93-3 and the Senate 41-7.

Districts like Hoquiam and Aberdeen have already forecast staff layoffs in reaction to large budget shortfalls due in part to teachers raises earlier this year and the current state school funding model. Districts deciding whether to bring back some of the teachers will have to consider that as of now, this is funding for a single year.

Walsh’s school funding fix

The hold harmless legislation gives local school districts a one-time shot in the arm, but the best way to benefit rural schools in the long run is to get rid of the current “prototypical school” funding model set in state statute and replace it with one that gives local districts more power over how money from the state is used, said Walsh.

“A big part of the problem is the distribution of funds,” said Walsh. “That is part of (the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s) prototypical funding model.”

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction allots resources based on a theoretical school. Depending on factors, including school size, the formula determines a school needs a certain number of counselors, teachers etc. Walsh would fix an amount per student, no matter the size of the school or district and essentially divide education funding up evenly, everybody gets the same amount per student.

“I wanted to blow up (the prototypical model) completely and go to a per student budget model; each school gets X amount of dollars per student,” said Walsh. “This would give each superintendent greater latitude in how the funding is spent.”

The prototypical model uses a formula with class size assumptions based on grade and subject. Where the formula is particularly hard on smaller schools is evident in the case of the number of counselors a school is allocated, based on the formula, said Walsh.

“The model is very specific in ways that don’t work for every school,” he said. “X number of students get Y number of counselors.” The formula may indicate a smaller school is allocated, say, .6 counselors. In the rounding, some small schools end up with none.

Walsh said there has been some push-back against the per-student funding model, from teachers unions and others, partially based on concerns about giving superintendents that amount of latitude in deciding where state funding is spent in their districts. He said unions would prefer to have district funding that specifies a certain amount be spent strictly on staffing, something the current model does.