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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Sen. Mark Schoesler: Don’t blame Legislature for school districts’ budget problems

Sen. Mark Schoesler

If Spokesman-Review readers saw last week’s story (“Spokane schools issues 325 layoff notices amid budget shortfall”), they understandably would have questions, and might conclude the Legislature caused the $31 million deficit being predicted for next year by Spokane Public Schools.

But there is more to this issue. People should be aware of the factors that school districts and education unions aren’t mentioning when claiming to be in financial trouble.

In the course of greatly increasing the state-level investment in K-12 education from 2013 through 2017, legislators also placed a cap of $1.50 per $1,000 assessed valuation on local levies. That was in 2017. We did it to rebalance the amount of state versus local funding going to schools, and prevent a future imbalance like the one that prompted the multi-year McCleary lawsuit. (This is the second time a court decision prompted the Legislature to revamp Washington’s school funding system so it relied less on levies. The first was the Doran decision in 1977.)

Unfortunately, many in the education community now say the $1.50 cap is causing local funding shortages, and want a legislative bailout. They conveniently fail to acknowledge how their total funding is higher, thanks to the substantial increase in state funding to districts, nor do they mention the effect of teacher salary negotiations last year.

Spokane Public Schools saw a $46.4 million gain in total funding between the 2017-18 school year and the current school year. That’s a 15.4 percent increase despite the $1.50 local-levy cap (again, because state funding increased dramatically). The question is whether 325 employees, including all school librarians, are receiving layoff notices because of the local-levy cap, or because of the pay raises agreed to by SPS this past year, which averaged 13.2 percent. During these contract talks with teachers, district officials knew that giving out massive salary hikes might push their district budget into the red. Apparently it didn’t matter enough. A more responsible approach by the district would have been to give sustainable raises to teachers or build a rainy day fund to provide a cushion against declining enrollments or unexpected costs.

According to data from the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program, the average total salary (base salary plus additional salary, which is connected to supplemental contracts known as “TRI” for Time, Responsibility and Incentive), for full-time teachers statewide had increased from $58,606 in 2008 to $73,683 in 2018. This year, the average total salary for full-time Spokane teachers is $81,004. Of the total salary, the average base salary skyrocketed from $56,700 in 2018 to $75,428 in 2019 – about a 25-percent increase in base pay, in just one year. In what other profession do you see such a dramatic one-year salary hike for its employees?

Democrats on the Senate budget committee have endorsed a “lift” of the $1.50 local-levy cap that could raise property taxes statewide by around $800 million. House Democrats have proposed a different form of bailout – still a levy-related change, based on a percentage instead of a dollar amount. Either one would put state government back on the road toward another school-funding lawsuit.

If school districts still have common funding needs that aren’t being met by the tens of billions of dollars already going into K-12, Republicans believe we should be talking about how to address those at the state level, and leave the local-levy limit in place. An example is special education – districts were using that to justify the push for a levy-lid lift, but the Legislature is instead planning to make a significant new investment at the state level.

If the Legislature raises the school-levy lid, it will eventually take our state back to the future, to a time when school districts with higher property valuations again have a distinct advantage over other districts when it comes to raising dollars locally. That would mean a return to the funding inequities that the Legislature worked hard to eliminate, while putting a greater burden on property owners whose taxes fund our schools.

Before anyone labels me as anti-teacher, know that my daughter and son-in-law are teachers. They are dedicated to their profession and their students. I am proud of them for helping educate our younger generations.

My disappointment is in the education unions that saw the big infusion of state dollars as an opportunity to pressure school districts into giving massive salary increases. That, not the local-levy cap, explains why 325 layoff notices were just issued in Spokane.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is Senate Republican leader. He serves the 9th Legislative District.