As school districts in Washington state frantically prepare for fall, Chris Reykdal has spent the summer thinking of ways to help them, sometimes running into red tape.
Since June, the state schools chief has pushed for roughly $21 million owed to his department, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), from the federal stimulus package. It’s money he plans to spend on training teachers in remote instruction; a grant program for community organizations offering language translation for families; internet access for up to 67,000 low-income households; and funding additional staff in his department.
After six weeks of lobbying, he’s just now secured $2.5 million for training, and $450,000 in additional general aid for schools.
But with nearly half of the state’s students likely to attend school online starting next month, Reykdal hasn’t been able to convince state officials to give him the rest, including the roughly $8.8 million for internet access.
“It’s not gonna change the world,” Reykdal said in an interview last week. “But it would create a framework for districts to move more confidently forward.”
It’s a small chunk of money in the scheme of things, especially for education, which makes up more than half of the state’s $53.3 billion biennium budget.
Yet Reykdal’s quest to prepare for an unprecedented school season has collided with the challenges faced by Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration and state lawmakers as they budget amid a once-a-century pandemic.
Washington officials face a collection of dire uncertainties as they dole out pieces of the $2.2 billion federal CARES Act stimulus package. There’s a multibillion-dollar projected state budget shortfall, an unpredictable economic future and a volatile virus capable of outrunning officials’ best-laid plans.
But the federal government sets the rules on how much goes to education.
Washington’s aid package calls for $216 million to go to education. Under federal rules, 90% of that — $195 million — goes directly toward districts, and 10% goes to the state education department.
As they await word from Congress about whether – or if – they’ll get any new financial help, state officials are using an obscure law to distribute pieces of the existing package. State budget officials and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who have been informally looped into the discussions, are trying to determine how best to spend the approximately $1 billion that’s left.
“The strategy is to get some of the money out in a hurry and keep some of the money in the back pocket for what comes next,” said David Schumacher, director of the state Office of Financial Management (OFM), the state budget office leading the effort.
As an example of the uncertainty officials face amid the rapidly-shifting response to the virus, Schumacher cited the brief appearance of a military field hospital in Seattle in early April, when public health officials feared hospital systems would become overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Roughly a week after it was set up, officials determined it wasn’t actually needed.
Washington has spent down more of its stimulus money compared to some other states like New Jersey, where as of July 23, that state had only spent about 10% of its $2.4 billion aid package, according to NJ Spotlight.
When the Legislature isn’t in session, state law requires all “unanticipated receipts” — surprise amounts of incoming revenue — to be managed at the discretion of the governor’s budget officials at OFM. Often that means small amounts of money, in the millions, not billions.
In recent months, OFM – in consultation with lawmakers, advocacy groups and others – has distributed nearly $1 billion to help with needs across the state, with more expected to go out soon. They’ve given $100 million to the Department of Commerce to provide rental assistance; $29 million to the Department of Children, Youth and Families for childcare support; and $10 million to the Department of Health for virus testing and contact tracing.
And school districts have received $195 million directly for their coronavirus-related expenses, a stipulation of the aid.
But the roughly $21 million designated for OSPI has largely hung in limbo for weeks as state officials grapple with how to effectively spend the CARES Act funding.
“We are losing precious time to be ready for our fall reopening,” Reykdal wrote in a June 17 letter addressed to Schumacher and copied to lawmakers.
The unanticipated receipts law allows legislators to comment on OFM’s plans – but not necessarily stop or change decisions. Reykdal and other agencies, meanwhile, must plead their case to OFM and try to get support of the lawmakers for good measure. One of Reykdal’s staff members described it as a “weird dance.”
“We keep saying that if they don’t get the money out in the summer, they’re not going to be prepared,” Reykdal said in a recent meeting with his cabinet. “The challenge is the Legislature decided not to come back in a timely way.”
He isn’t the only one frustrated with that process.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, has called on Inslee to convene a special session this summer to talk over how to spend the funds, saying the statute wasn’t intended to give the Governor this much spending power.
“No one who wrote that law ever anticipated that it would be used to spend this scale of money,” Braun said.
“I get that being in session is hard in a pandemic,” added Braun, who recently penned a letter to fellow lawmakers arguing that they were ceding their constitutional powers to the executive branch. “But on principle, this is the wrong way to do this. It’s the Legislature’s job to appropriate funds.”
The CARES Act package contains rules prohibiting states from using the money to for uses not related to the COVD-19 response. Both Braun and Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, suggest there are ways the state may be able to spend some of the remaining money to offset the state’s steep drop in tax collections during the economic slowdown.
Reykdal may soon see some help on getting internet access.
The announcements of so many school districts sticking with online learning in the fall “have changed the focus of the whole K-12 considerations,” said Rolfes, the chief Senate Democratic budget writer.
Other parts of the federal dollars might be better suited to fund internet access, she said, and the project could potentially cost more than what Reykdal estimates.
But, “I wouldn’t classify this as a catfight or a fight,” said Rolfes, adding that Reykdal has been good to work with. “We’re just sort of sorting it out as we go along.”
Meanwhile, House Democrats were set last week to discuss Reykdal’s request, according to House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
“I support the additional funding and I believe our caucus will as well,” Sullivan wrote in a text message.