Court ruling forces changes in school funding

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File photo The state’s ‘paramount duty’ to fund schools is creating some major ripples in school districts’ budgets.

By CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE

For the Sun Tribune

“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.” — Article Nine, Paragraph One of the Washington State Constitution.

EPHRATA — Daniel Martell doesn’t want to talk about budget cuts.

Not yet, anyway.

“I’ll tell you this,” the interim superintendent of the Ephrata School District said on a bright but cold Friday morning in winter, “I’m not going to give you any information on cuts. I’ve not talked with the board yet.”

With a district-wide budget of roughly $35 million for the 2018-19 school year, things are tight in Ephrata, a district with approximately 2,500 students in three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. Over the next four years, the district is expected to see its current $5.1 million budget surplus dwindle to just $500,000 by 2021-22 school year.

In fact, that surplus is going to decline despite the fact the Ephrata School District is expected to see its state funding rise by $4 million over the same period, according to figures from both the Ephrata School District and the Washington Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI).

“Our board is very aware of our fiscal picture and surroundings and the impact of McCleary,” said Martell, a veteran teacher and former Ephrata principal who added that he “bleeds orange.”

“We do believe that in a couple of years, the legislature will have to do something,” he added. “But we plan for the best- and worst-case scenarios.”

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. Not after “The McCleary Fix.”

In 2007, two Seattle families — Matthew and Stephanie McCleary, and Robert and Patty Venema, each with two kids in the state schools — along with the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, sued the state, claiming the legislature had failed to live up to its “paramount duty” and properly fund education.

“I had done a lot of constitutional and educational issues in the past,” said Robert Ahearne, a noted Seattle attorney who represented the McCleary and Venema families. “And we wanted to have the state amply fund the education of every single child in the state of Washington.”

“Ample is more than adequate,” Ahearne added. “It means more.”

And in January 2012, after a series of hearings, the State Supreme Court agreed — “The state has not complied” with its constitutional duty “to make ample provision for the education of all children in Washington.”

The Court meant it, finding the state legislature in contempt in 2014 for failing to address school funding, and then in August 2015, fining the state $100,000 per day until the matter was solved.

In 2017, the legislature enacted sweeping new changes in school funding, enacting a second statewide school property tax levy, raising teacher pay, creating a new state agency to handle teacher benefits, and scrapping the statewide teacher salary schedule in favor of a $40,000 floor and a roughly $90,000 ceiling.

In return, the legislature also capped local property tax levies at $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value and prevented local districts from spending any local money on “basic education.”

“2017 went well beyond what the court mandated,” said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, in Olympia. “The state was not fully funding education. But it was not about the levy, or salaries. There was no requirement to change those things.”

Even with the second school levy — set at $1.09 per $1,000 in Grant County — voters in school districts such as Moses Lake (with a local levy of $4.61) and Ephrata ($4.70) will see a significant decrease in their property taxes as the $1.50 levy comes into effect.

But for roughly one-third of the state’s 295 school districts, the increase in state funding — and control — won’t make up for the loss of local revenue. Ephrata’s Martell said his district has a “healthy reserve” and will be using those funds to make ends meet.

“That’s how we will be balancing our budget over the next few years,” he said.

Even more dire is the situation for the Moses Lake School District, which faces a $25 million budget deficit — and potential insolvency — in four years because of the situation “The McCleary Fix” has created.

“McCleary resulted in several billions overall for students in our state,” the WEA’s Wood said. “But the state certainly has more work to do, and there’s some concern that some districts aren’t recognizing the success we’ve had.”

Wood was emphatic — even though nothing can be done without money, in all the arguments over funding and court cases and words in the state constitution, in the end, it’s all about the children of the state of Washington.

“Students. That’s really what the focus needs to be on,” he said. “Kids aren’t getting the support they need, and that gets lost in the debate over budgets and four year projections.”

COMING NEXT WEEK — How money is doled out to schools, and where the term “basic education” comes from.

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