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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Jim Kowalkowski: Beyond McCleary: We now have more losers than winners

Jim Kowalkowski

The recent Washington state Supreme Court ruling that ended the McCleary lawsuit does not mean that K-12 public education funding issues have all been resolved. In fact, we now have more inequities and much more work needs to be done to ensure that our schools are amply funded. A recent Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction survey found that, after the 2018 legislative session, state funding for special education is more than $100 million short. This has to be addressed. In addition, the inequities of the new way teacher salaries are funded and the loss of local levy dollars also will have dire impacts on many districts.

The new funding mechanism for teacher salaries will actually create more losers than winners. This is due to the increased regionalization pay and/or the increased experience-factor pay that some districts will get. These “winner” districts will be able to attract and retain their teachers by offering a much more competitive salary than many other districts – even some that are located right next door.

There are 295 school districts in our state. Ninety-three of these districts (32 percent) will be receiving additional funding for regionalization that ranges from an additional 6 percent to 24 percent increase in state funding for salaries. Beginning in 2019-20, 14 of those 93 districts will also receive experience-factor funding of an added 4 percent along with 42 more school districts. When you run the numbers, you find that 160 school districts (54 percent) in our state are the losers; these districts will not receive any of the additional regionalization and/or experience factor.

For decades, the base salary schedule in our state was the same for teachers, no matter where they taught. The salary allocation model and the associated staff mix factor treated teachers and districts equitably. A small and rural district like mine could as least compete against larger districts. That salary model is now shredded. We now have a teacher “salary cap” that will force hiring decisions based on the “least expensive teacher” vs. the most qualified. In the 19 years that I have served as a school district superintendent in our state, I have never been more concerned about how districts with limited resources will have any kind of a fair chance at recruiting and retaining quality teachers.

Beginning in 2019, local school “enrichment” levy rates are limited at $1.50 of assessed valuation. Many school districts are property poor. These districts (mine included) have low assessed valuations. What this means is that the imposed limit of $1.50 will collect much less funding than a district that has a much higher tax base. My district will collect over $600,000 less each calendar year, despite the fact that our local voters approved a four-year levy in 2016. We use our levy to support numerous student activities, to fund professional development, to purchase technology and textbooks, to support our College in the High School programs, to fund pre-school, and to help pay for additional staff beyond what the state funding covers. Despite the state’s insistence that basic education is now fully funded, the reality is that this is not true. Special education, transportation, sick leave, insurance costs and professional development are some of the areas that are still underfunded for many districts. In the past, we could use local levies to cover the shortfall. Now, school boards and superintendents are pondering how they will be able to continue to offer a quality education for their students and avoid cuts to programs and staff.

While a few changes were made to improve the new salary-funding model in the 2018 legislative session, we still have far too many districts who are the losers. Yes, overall much more money is going to fund teacher salaries. However, much of this money is going to a limited number of districts. In addition, the ability of local voters to support their local schools has been significantly harmed by the new limits on local levies. If no changes are made, the ZIP code of students will end up determining the quality of their education. That is just plain wrong and was never the intent of the McCleary case.

Jim Kowalkowski serves as the superintendent for the small and rural Davenport School District in Eastern Washington. He is the director of the Rural Education Center, a cooperative of more than 80 small and rural districts and educational organizations that is affiliated with Washington State University’s College of Education and NorthEast Washington ESD 101.