School districts throughout Washington state needed clear guidance this year as they entered contract negotiations with teachers. Yet for the most part, state superintendent Chris Reykdal has failed to provide that leadership.

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Washington state’s 295 school districts needed clear guidance this summer as the majority began complex contract negotiations with their local teachers unions.

With the Legislature recently approving billions more dollars for K-12 education, many districts have faced pressure to dramatically increase teacher pay — in some cases, beyond what they can actually afford.

Yet the state’s elected schools chief shirked his responsibility to provide clear, consistent guidance as the state forges ahead with a new system of paying for schools.

Last month, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal wrote a letter declaring the Legislature had approved “wide open collective bargaining” for teachers. The statewide teachers union quickly seized upon the July 26 letter to support its push for widespread, double-digit pay raises.

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Now, about a month later, Reykdal has issued new guidance with a very different message: He is telling school districts to stay within their means and not negotiate unsustainable salary increases that will throw their budgets out of balance in the long term.

In his new letter to superintendents Wednesday, Reykdal emphasized that there is a “practical limitation on collective bargaining,” stressing that school districts must be able to sustain whatever salary increases they negotiate this year. He also reminded school districts of new accountability rules, including a requirement that they submit four-year budget plans — plans his office will consider when ranking districts’ financial health.

This is the strong, public message that school districts needed weeks or months ago, not mere days before a new school year is supposed to start.

Reykdal’s delay in issuing this advice publicly means many school districts were unable to use it to their benefit at the bargaining table in recent weeks. While local teachers unions came armed with Reykdal’s statement from July, school district officials lacked the same written support from the state superintendent’s office declaring that they must adhere to fiscally sound, long-term budgeting principles.

“I do think it would have been helpful to have that piece in writing from Superintendent Reykdal,” said Joel Aune, the executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators. “If he had put it out there sooner, it would have been better, most definitely.”

Without a doubt, teachers across the state can expect raises this year. But not all of the money approved by the Legislature can go directly toward increasing teachers’ take-home pay. Instead, some of the new state dollars will be needed to offset mandatory reductions in local school district property taxes, which are set to take effect next year.

This was the solution the Legislature landed on to reduce the state’s unconstitutional reliance on local levies, which for too long have supplemented what the state pays to hire teachers and other school employees. In the McCleary case, the state Supreme Court said these voter-approved levies do not provide dependable enough funding for basic education costs, including paying teachers.

Replacing local dollars with state dollars is part of how the Legislature decided to address that long-running school crisis.

But while speeding up the implementation of that plan satisfied the high court, it has left school districts with a one-year funding spike in the 2018-19 school year that won’t continue going forward. Bargaining away all of that money for raises this year will put many districts in a financial bind in 2019-20 and beyond.

If school districts ignore these fiscal realities, voters should hold their local school boards to account.

For certain, the Democratic-controlled Legislature shares blame this year for not enacting clearer rules governing collective bargaining for teachers. And some aspects of the state’s new K-12 model will need adjustment, including fixing shortfalls in special education funding and ensuring all students receive a quality education.

But Reykdal committed a serious error by not emphasizing the law’s existing accountability provisions earlier and more forcefully.

When it came time to lead in this important transitional year, Reykdal instead muddied the waters.

The state superintendent’s belated attempt to course correct on Wednesday was a step in the right direction.

But, given that many districts already have settled on contracts or are deep into their negotiations, it may have been too little, too late.