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School funding study passed

OLYMPIA – Days before Spokane school officials announce what are likely to be millions of dollars in “painful” budget cuts, the state Senate on Friday voted for a nine-month study aimed at revamping – and presumably boosting – school spending.

Proponents described it as a fast-paced plan to poise lawmakers for major changes, starting next January. The bill passed overwhelmingly, 43 to 5.

But some lawmakers and school officials say that help for local schools is already long overdue.

In the coming week, Spokane Public Schools will propose budget cuts that will inevitably include popular programs, according to Superintendent Brian Benzel.

He wouldn’t specify what’s on the chopping block. But he noted that less than a fifth of the district’s $275 million budget is discretionary, “much of which the public really likes.” Among the types of programs in that category: small class sizes, athletics, band, drama, music, debate, libraries and counseling.

In Olympia Friday, several Republican senators said what Benzel and other school officials throughout the state have been saying: Schools need cash now, not more study. To make that point, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, on Friday piled his desk with 18 school-funding reports, some dating back to the early 1990s.

“It’s clearly just punting again. It’s clearly just another study,” Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, said of Senate Bill 5627. “Will this one be the one that finally comes up with something?”

“Sometimes we study things and it’s a form of paralysis,” said Sen. Jim Clements, R-Selah.

Democrats and several Republicans, however, said the state first needs to fix an absurdly complex and poorly defined funding formula, then pay for what works.

“It is not a study,” said prime sponsor Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell. “It is a plan of action.”

And some help is likely to come this year. On Monday, some House lawmakers recommended $116 million more for special education, student transportation and new teachers over the next two years. It was part of a $1 billion proposal that includes:

“More money for day care workers.

“$51 million for all-day kindergarten in high-poverty schools.

“$350 million for cost-of-living increases for teachers.

“$238 million for reducing class sizes.

“$61 million to increase the number of spaces for college students.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, predicted that the task force’s final recommendations, due Jan. 1, will “come as a tidal wave, a shocking occurrence to our schools when they see what this means.”

The goal, Brown said, is a simple, fair funding formula that does a better job of taking into account things like special-education costs, poverty and teacher salaries.

And once the plan arrives, she said, lawmakers will have to see if they have the political will to find the money to pay for it.

Frustration is already high among school officials. Numerous districts have joined several lawsuits against the state, trying to force more money for basic education and special education.

In Spokane, after years of finding efficiencies and making administrative cuts to cover recurring budget shortfalls, Benzel said, “I don’t know how to do that anymore. This is the day of reckoning.”

The items slated to be cut, he said, “are important things” and are likely to trigger just as much emotion as the recent discussion of closing a school.

For years, he said, district staff have been making less-visible cuts in central office staff and maintenance, and spending down the district’s savings.

“It’s not an artificial crisis,” he said. “We’ve been avoiding it and solving it so well that people think we’re going to keep being able to do that. But where we’re at now is we’re out of options.”

Benzel said he was disappointed last year when Gov. Chris Gregoire’s much-touted “Washington Learns” task force didn’t recommend changes to the basic-education funding formula, a move that would likely require major tax increases.

“Washington Learns was supposed to be a study of the basic funding flaws,” he said. “It ended up being a wish list…In the meantime, the crisis will move from a crisis to reality.”

The governor and some lawmakers argue that the Washington Learns study, which was allocated $1.7 million and nearly two years, came up with a lot of data that provides a valuable foundation for the new basic-funding study.

It would be a grave error, Gregoire has repeatedly said, to simply throw more money into the school system without a better plan.

“When you look at spending and concentrate on spending, you get very good at spending,” said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina.

The “quagmire” that the education system is in now is because of decisions dating back 30 years, he said. It’s critical, Tom said, not to repeat those mistakes.

Whatever changes come about next winter in Olympia, they’re likely to be phased in over years.

As Pflug noted, next year isn’t even a major budget-writing year in the state’s two-year budget cycle.

McAuliffe said she’s hoping to phase in the funding formula overhaul within six years.


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