The responsibility for Seattle Public Schools’ budget crisis belongs to the state, writes Superintendent Larry Nyland.
SEATTLE Public Schools is facing its largest budget crisis in nearly 30 years. This is a manufactured crisis that should never have happened.
So, why is it happening? For decades, our state’s support of public education has depended more and more on the use of local levy resources to backfill against underfunded state responsibilities. And when the state does provide funding, in nearly all cases, it underfunds the true cost of the work. Local levy revenues must make up the difference. Currently, the state pays 70 cents for every dollar it takes to fund critical education supports — including teacher compensation.
Next school year, Seattle Public Schools projects a $74 million shortfall. The state is responsible for virtually all of that shortfall. Thirty million dollars of the projected deficit is from the state’s premature reduction of our local levy; the state is taking away our ability to use voter-approved local taxes while at the same time not fully funding education.
Another $41 million represents the difference between what the state provides for compensation, class-size reduction and increased graduation requirements and the true cost. The remainder, about $3 million, is associated with opening and providing services to new schools, a necessary action to address our increasing enrollment.
Our levy loss of $30 million dollars is premature and irresponsible. The state is under court order (McCleary v. State) to fully fund what the Legislature promised in 2009. Until the state fulfills its court-ordered constitutional obligations, cutting our voter-approved local levies needlessly harms students and teachers. Seattle’s $30 million levy loss translates into hundreds of staff reductions of teaching, administrative and support positions. This unnecessary constraint on districts is happening in a time of teacher shortages, and on the eve of court orders to increase, not decrease, school funding.
Compensation is the second part of our funding crisis. Central to the issue is the question of whether educators should be paid like other professionals and fully compensated for the important service they provide for our students. Compensation of teachers and staff makes up 85 percent of our district’s budget.
Our educators’ strike last year gets to the core of the McCleary case, something The Seattle Times has clearly brought to the public’s attention. Districts statewide now pay 25-30 percent of the state responsibility for teacher compensation. Our educators demand and deserve to be paid a fair wage that reflects their professional qualifications and the local cost of living.
Our families, our local legislative delegation and our school board agreed. Our compensation is in line with neighboring districts, the Legislature’s own study of what educators should be paid and what the Washington State Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to address.
“A major component of the State’s deficiency in meeting its constitutional obligation is its consistent underfunding of the actual cost of recruiting and retaining competent teachers, administrators, and staff.” (McCleary Order, Aug. 13, 2015.)
Our students’ success comes from having highly skilled, highly motivated, creative professionals working together. Seattle Public Schools chose to increase educator compensation based on the promise of full funding from the state. Now, because the state has not yet met its constitutional duty as promised, a manufactured funding crisis will damage the future of our students and state.
Our public education funding model is not sustainable. It was ruled unconstitutional in 1978 (Seattle v. State of Washington) and it was ruled unconstitutional in 2012 (McCleary). Fixing this problem is the Legislature’s and governor’s job. We appreciate our local legislators’ support and we are pleased that the governor’s proposed budget takes a strong first step to address the overall need. But the state needs to move swiftly to address the crisis they have created not only for Seattle but other districts.
In Seattle, we are having conversations with our families and stakeholders about the potentially large budget deficit and the resulting impending cuts to Seattle Public Schools next year. We do not want to be forced to make difficult cuts that hurt our Seattle students.
Education matters. Education provides opportunity and is the backbone of a strong and economically stable community. In our state, a free, ample and equitable education is a birthright, a civil right and our state’s paramount duty. Now is the time to fulfill that promise to students across Washington state. Without the Legislature’s immediate action, the future of quality education is in peril.