Notices of mass layoffs in Spokane Public Schools raise the dispiriting question of whether another generation of students will pay the price for Washington state’s inability to meet its constitutional obligation to support public education.
The layoffs make it clear that money alone won’t satisfy the obligation. It’s equally important to ensure that school districts prudently allocate and spend the money they have.
Layoff notices will go to 325 Spokane teachers and other school employees – one in 12 of the district’s workers. School districts across the state are taking similar steps.
The layoffs are a cruel rebuke to the Washington Supreme Court, which last year found that the state government was finally in compliance with the constitutional mandate that it make “ample provision” for the funding of public education. That was six years and many contempt fines after the court’s McCleary decision declared lawmakers weren’t funding schools well enough.
The Legislature finally set things right by increasing public school funding 68 percent over a six-year period ending with the current 2017-19 biennium. Everything was OK for a little while. The increased flow of state funds allowed school districts across the state to reduce class sizes, boost graduation rates and strengthen services such as special education, counseling and nursing.
Even though enrollment rose by only 9 percent during the same period, the cash infusion turned out not to be enough to sustain services. Lawmakers also had limited how much money school districts could raise through local property tax levies, and local schools became more dependent on the state and less able to fill budget holes as a result.
Spokane is a clear example of the problem. The state provided Spokane Public Schools $37.2 million more this year than last. Meanwhile, a $20 million decline in local revenue offset about half of that. Combined with higher costs, the net result is a $31 million deficit in next year’s budget.
It didn’t help that teachers and other school employees had high expectations when the state money started flowing. Last year, teachers in Spokane Public Schools won salary increases of 13.2 percent. Those raises account for $24 million of the district’s $31 million deficit.
The public had no say in the raises because administrators negotiated with teachers behind closed doors. Had the discussions about spending public school dollars taken place publicly, someone might have pointed out that costs outpace revenues. When that happens, the public ends up paying more or getting less.
And it looks like students will get less if the layoffs happen. Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger says the district hopes to shield frontline classroom teachers, but the teachers who remain will see their workloads increase and their job conditions deteriorate. Students will learn in more-crowded classrooms or with fewer class opportunities.
It’s not hopeless. Taxpayers might be willing to pay more, if lawmakers let them.
The Washington Constitution requires “ample” school funding. Spokane and the entire state are learning that ample funding is not enough. Funding also must be sustainable and responsibly managed. When layoffs threaten one in 12 school employees, that clearly remains an elusive goal.
Local levy increases could preserve teaching positions and school programs in Spokane and elsewhere. Voters in some districts could be expected to welcome a chance to fill gaps in local school budgets.
But not all voters would respond enthusiastically. Many cannot easily afford higher local property taxes on top of the increase in state school taxes. Proposals for local levy increases might be greeted as gun-to-the-head threats from school districts that have been unable to manage their education programs with the funding increases granted to date.
Local levy increases would probably be approved in some districts and rejected in others – giving rise to have and have-not school systems across the state. The McCleary case came in response to such inequities. In terms of education funding, Washington is in danger of ending up back where it started.
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