School districts applaud the Legislature’s decision to spend $776 million on teacher salaries, but they remain wary of other K-12 budget decisions that lawmakers revealed the last day of this year’s session.
Lawmakers worked late into the evening Thursday to unwind some of the unintended consequences of last year’s hastily approved K-12 budget, including a teacher-salary formula tied to home values that school districts warned would create wide disparities in their funding.
But for many educators across Washington, the final hours of this year’s legislative session offered a heavy dose of déjà vu as they scrambled to understand exactly how lawmakers chose to tinker with the finances of the state’s 295 school districts. Republicans, meanwhile, warned that Democrats would undo last year’s compromise budget and create new problems for next year’s session.
Lawmakers last year spent less than 36 hours between unveiling the details of a four-year spending plan for public schools and approving that plan under threat of a government shutdown. This year, school districts didn’t even have a full day to judge the impact of a 2018 supplemental budget that cleared the Legislature late Thursday.
“There’s a couple things we’re happy about,” said JoLynn Berge, assistant superintendent for business and finance with Seattle Public Schools. “We appreciate how hard this is. But there are still things that have to be fixed.”
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Among the wins, Seattle and other districts counted the Legislature’s decision to spend $776 million to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s McCleary order that the state pay the full cost of teacher salaries by this fall. District officials also welcomed a one-year delay for new class-size requirements in kindergarten through third grade.
State schools chief Chris Reykdal, in a statement, applauded a boost in funding for special education and changes to a new state formula that will tie teacher pay to local housing values.
“We are now ready for a large transformation in our K-12 system over the next biennium and beyond,” Reykdal said.
But not everyone shared his enthusiasm.
Berge, for example, said the boost in special education amounts to just $27 million. Her district alone expects to spend about $50 million more than what the state will provide next year for students with special needs.
And in rural North Mason schools, Superintendent Dana Rosenbach worried that, even with a last-minute bump in the amount her district gets to pay teachers, it won’t be enough to keep them from taking new jobs in better-funded, neighboring districts.
“It’s still too little, too late,” Rosenbach said. “We will have to fight hard, but we’ll probably lose teachers that we value and who our kids cherish.”
Late Thursday, lawmakers debated a separate policy bill that Democrats argued was necessary to smooth out problems that emerged from last year’s K-12 budget.
“Everyone agreed it was imperfect,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, one of eight lawmakers who negotiated the K-12 budget in a rushed manner behind closed doors last year.
Since then, many small and rural districts have warned the new formula tying teacher salaries to housing values guaranteed they would get 6 to 24 percent less funding than their neighbors to recruit teachers from the same hiring pool. Other districts have decried the Legislature’s decision to implode a statewide salary schedule that provided extra money based on a teacher’s education and experience level.
But some Republicans warned that fussing with last year’s compromise could create new problems.
“Is it perfect? No,” said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, on the House floor. But, “let’s implement what we have done and leave this alone.”
Ultimately, the Legislature voted along party lines to approve the policy bill, which offers a 6 percent boost in funding for salaries for six districts west of the Cascades, including North Mason. An additional change to the salary formula, which won’t kick in until the 2019-20 school year, will give a 4 percent boost to about 60 districts, mostly in Eastern Washington.
Many districts also had hoped the Legislature would provide some flexibility with upcoming cuts to their local property-tax rates. The flexibility never came, but the powerful state teachers union, which also lobbied for the change, focused on the extra $776 million for salaries.
“In coming months Washington’s educators will work with their school districts and communities to ensure this new school funding is invested in the educators who support and educate our students every day,” Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, said in a statement.
Other education bills
Aside from the budget, lawmakers waited until the final days of this year’s short session before approving other pieces of legislation related to education.
Those bills include the creation of new curriculum to teach K-12 students about sexual abuse and how to prevent it; a stand-alone civics course in all high schools by 2020-21; and an expansion to the state’s preschool program for children whose families earn above an income limit but are homeless or facing other risks.
“We know from all the research that being homeless or being engaged in the child-welfare system, that’s going to put you in a bad spot going into kindergarten,” said Joel Ryan, executive director of a nonprofit organization based in Bellevue that advocates for early childhood education.
In higher education, the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges celebrated the 2018 supplemental budget for maintaining a higher level of funding for Running Start, a popular dual-credit program for high-school students.
“Over 26,000 high school juniors and seniors earn college credit while still in high school,” the organization posted on social media. “Great opportunity and great program benefiting students and their families.”