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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Imagine if the tables were turned on school and athletics funding

Imagine the Legislature was in charge of funding Washington State University athletics, and Bill Moos was in charge of paying the bills for state schools.

Imagine the football team begging for money in court, while schools spend like sailors on leave. Imagine that cranky legislators pored over every line item of the basketball team, while schools shruggingly dived into the red. Imagine that legislators went around with statistics in their heads meant to illustrate that sports get too much money already, while schools desperately pleaded with donors to help them spend and spend, ever more.

Imagine it was education for which no cost was too great.

A ridiculous and inapt comparison, of course. For many reasons. One of them is this: There is no constitutional mandate for the ample funding of college sports.

It just seems like it.

But education is not sports, as recent events remind us. The Legislature, operating under a Supreme Court order and contempt-of-court judgment to fix school funding, keeps not fixing school funding. Ask a legislator about this, especially a conservative one, and you’re likely to get not a funding plan but a constitutional argument. A defiant rejection of the authority of the Supreme Court’s order. A refusal to pay the fines that are being levied day by day against the lawmakers for their contempt of court. (The irony of this scofflaw behavior is especially potent, given how the lower rungs of our justice system treat unpaid fines – as a reason to turn misdemeanor scofflaws into wanted felons.)

The underlying conviction of those driving this response is that the state does not, in fact, need to do a better job of funding schools. They’re taking to this task like a child ordered to clean his room, shoving their dirty clothes under the bed.

Contrast this to Washington State University and athletics. Since the advent of Athletic Director Bill Moos and football coach Mike Leach and the pronounced efforts to spiff up sports in Pullman, there has been the kind of spending spree that we more or less accept as a normal and rational wing of higher education. Most of it is not tax dollars, but TV money, largesse from donors and other sources. Still, tens of millions on new facilities, on hiring and firing coaches, on keeping up with the Joneses.

Moos’ athletic department ran deep into the red last year. Again.

In 2013, WSU overspent its $47 million in sports revenues by about $4 million. In 2014, revenues increased, but so did spending – by $10 million.

All told, WSU athletics dug itself a $13 million hole last year. On purpose.

“We expected a sizable deficit as we put our numbers together and then we decided to make it even larger to take care of some things that we felt needed to happen, and with university President (Elson) Floyd’s blessing,” Moos told The Spokesman-Review in January. “For example, the buyout of our men’s basketball coach and the hiring of the new one. Those are pretty big hits.”

This week, when new WSU President Kirk Schulz rattled the Palouse by pointing out that Wazzu’s free-spending ways would be curtailed, Moos responded with the opposite of that hoary old cliché that Republicans always drag out in budget crises: It’s not a spending problem, it’s a revenue problem.

“We need to raise more money, simple as that,” said Moos. “It’s everybody’s problem, and we all need to focus on finding a solution.”

Is it everybody’s problem? Yours? Mine? Moos fired basketball coach Ken Bone, which cost WSU $1.8 million in contract guarantees, plus the new contract for Ernie Kent. Coaching salaries went up. WSU added $1 million for football coaches, and paid bonuses for making a bowl game. Fundraising, meanwhile, has not been as robust as expected, and neither have revenues from a television deal.

Should WSU spend less on athletics? From the sound of things, Moos isn’t so sure that it shouldn’t spend more.

“We’re already next to the last in the Pac-12 in terms of expenditures,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Legislature diddles along. Naturally, that’s not the way lawmakers see it. In its annual report to the Supreme Court, required by the court’s McCleary decision in 2012, the Legislature argues that it has made “substantial” progress, including implementing all-day kindergarten and providing some raises. All told, this represents a 36 percent funding increase for K-12 education since the original McCleary decision, the legislative committee that oversees the McCleary response said.

But the Legislature has produced more talk than walk on this issue, despite these improvements. The court punished this foot-dragging with $100,000-a-day fines for contempt of court that the Legislature has simply ignored; the refusal to pay the fines, or account for them in any fashion, was entirely, even contemptuously, ignored in the committee’s report.

And the Legislature’s failure to develop a plan to implement teacher raises and reduce reliance on local levies – which is a key piece of its constitutional dereliction – is the main theme of its report to the court. Committee member Christine Rolfes, a Bainbridge Island Democrat, told the Seattle Times: “This report reflects what we didn’t do.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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