Orcas Island School Board contends with state legislators over school funding

  • Tue Jun 17th, 2008 8:16pm
  • News

OISD talks turkey with elected state officials

On May 27, members of the Orcas Island School District (OISD) board, OISD Superintendent Glenn Harris and Lopez Island School District Superintendent Bill Evans sat down with State Representatives Dave Quall, chair of the Education Committee, and Jeff Morris, to discuss the current, state-wide school funding crisis, and the political climate to find solutions to the crisis.

The state representatives’ assurances of a Legislative task force to define basic education and reform the state’s funding of it, in order to present solutions to the 2009 Legislative session, was met with some impatience by the local school officials, who pursued immediate solutions to the funding crisis.

For their part, Quall and Morris said that, during recent meetings on San Juan and Orcas Island, they had learned to their surprise that recent funding directives from the state legislature were not welcomed, as they added to the districts’ financial burdens.

What happened?

Quall asked at the May 27 meeting, “With a $667,000 projected deficit, what happened?”

Harris responded that declining enrollment was the primary culprit, but that while “Legislative budgeting initially looked pretty good, [legislators] went away with additional costs to the districts because the state was not funding” cost of living (COLA) increases but were assuming funds would come out of Basic Education money that goes to the districts. For the Orcas Island School District, the additional cost of COLAs was around $150,000, Harris said. (Harris declined the COLA adjustment last year and this year.)

Adding the reduction caused by declining enrollment and inflationary increases to non-employee-related costs (NERCs), “we’re sitting with a $667,000 deficit,” said Harris.

Board member Scott Lancaster said that, for the 459 students enrolled in OISD this year, the district gets about $6,800 per student, while the actual cost is about $11,000. He added, “every school has that same issue.”

Details of employee costs include the transfer of accrued benefit packages from previous districts when teachers with seniority are recruited into the islands’ school districts. However, although Orcas anticipates some of its teachers retiring, of greater concern are newer teachers who are the first to be RIF’d (reduced in force) and who then must seek other employment or leave the island. Often these are younger families with school-age children.

“Then we’re RIFing the very people who bring enrollment to us,” said OISD Board President Janet Brownell.

Board member Tony Ghazel said that “Special Education costs $300,000 – twice what we’re given. “

Morris noted that state-wide, the numbers of autistic students is going up, and “Special Ed costs are going to climb.”

The cost of applying for state funding for programs such as the Safety Net are “punitive,” Harris said, with grant amounts minimal after the high thresholds for applying is met.

Ghazel also noted that the budgeting process is counter-productive, with enrollment “guesses” in January preceding program scheduling and staff RIFs, followed by districts submitting their budget to the state in July, with the actual enrollment figures not known until school starts in September.

Levy solution

The school officials offered solutions to the state officials, notably in proposing a special levy to address the current situation.

Lancaster said, “The last [school] levy passed by 70 percent in this community, on top of a $250,000 fundraising drive. The community absolutely wants to support the schools.

Brownell noted that $175,000 of the funds raised by the community went to replace RIF’d teachers and to fund specific classes.

“What would it take to have you call the Legislature into special session?” Lancaster asked Quall and Morris.

While Quall at first said that a special session was unlikely, due to a lack of political will, and Morris said that to dip into the state’s reserve fund would be a “tough fight,” later Quall said that the OISD board’s proposal to raise funds with a special levy was a unique proposal, “the first time I’ve heard a school district say ‘we’re willing to tax ourselves.’”

Morris said that a Special Session needed to be preceded by a widely-accepted proposal that could be adopted quickly by the Legislature. “The key is to get folks …in all parts of the education community lined up on the solution.”

Board member Charlie Glasser said, “The bottom fell out throughout the entire state of Washington; given that crisis level, maybe enough push could be developed to establish the political will.

“That’s the leadership role: taking a major crisis – and what is more important than education or our kids? – and making a case for it.”

Board member Keith Whitaker said, “In order to solve the long-term issue of funding, we can’t afford to leave willing taxpayer support behind.”

Quall noted that the OISD’s current levy runs until 2010, but board members continued to push for a special levy. Brownell said, “We can’t control what Olympia does, but a levy would provide local control and immediate relief.”

Brownell said that while the community may be willing to raise funds “if it solves our crisis, we shouldn’t relieve the State from its responsibility.” Morris agreed with her, saying “Local levies have enabled us not to deal with reforming basic education.”

Ghazel questioned, “But what happens before basic education is reformed?”

Morris said that even if a special session were called, “It would be the next fiscal year before the cash comes in.”

When Brownell said that the anticipated task force wouldn’t begin until this December, Morris said, “It’s not just another task force; we’ve sent a clear message we’re going to do something different if they don’t come up with a solution.”

Local efficiencies

When Morris said that the crisis had not produced any efficiency measures, Lancaster cited the school’s transportation budget as a prime example of state laws and administrative code skewing local district’s expenses.

“The state won’t allow us to purchase smaller buses, say for 12 kids … that cripples us,” said Lancaster. If the district had been allowed to purchase smaller buses, it would have saved $200,000 on ferry transportation alone, said Lancaster.

Brownell added, “When you have a 40-passenger bus driving six kids to and from Deer Harbor every day, for example, the amount of fuel being burnt is enormous.”

Whitaker added that the transportation budget holds more money for buses than is needed. “The money for buses piles up; we have two brand-new buses and $60,000 is sitting in the transportation fund. A one-time release of that bus money won’t cost the state a nickel, and would allow us to keep a RIF’d teacher.”

Harris added that the situation was “probably the same around the state; a lot of little things could happen that are not costly to the state.”

Morris cautioned against a “cookie-cutter approach” to cost-savings, but added, “You might be able to develop a package that would work for all districts.”

Lancaster said that the four of the five members of the OISD board are business people competent with financial matters, but that the state’s funding of schools was “incomprehensible to any one of us.”

Quall asked how the money provided by Initiative 728 (designed to reduce class sizes and passed earlier this decade) was being spent, and Brownell and Glasser said that the funds were being spent on basic education “all over the state.”

Political leadership

Quall mentioned that a statewide meeting of school administrators and principals in Spokane at the end of June would be a good opportunity to issue a “clarion crisis call,” to the legislature, board members asked if that wasn’t part of being an elected official, to present concerns such as theirs to the legislature.

Lancaster told of a radio conversation he had with Governor Gregoire where he asked her, “How can you say you’re the education governor when we’re RIFing seven teachers?” Lancaster said that Gregoire replied “You’ve got your facts wrong,” and the call was terminated.

Morris suggested a short-term option was for the governor to issue an Executive Order, but “we need to focus on long-term solutions.”

Whitaker added, “We want to still be here when the long-range solution happens.”

Brownell echoed Whitaker, saying that OISD is coming to a point where, “If we have to make any further cuts, providing basic education is in question.”

Science and computer classes are not available to students who may want to pursue those subjects on a college level, for example.

Glasser said, “We all agree the system is broken and needs to be fixed. We’ve got to RIF people and stick with it and get money now, any short term activity you can help us with right now is critical.

“This is an election year, and everything is ready for a new discussion. I hope you guys will take the lead in this.”

Harris called addressing the education crisis a matter of “political viability.”

Morris said, “Even without this crisis we were severely underfunding schools.”

Morris acts

On Friday, May 30, Morris issued this statement:

“Earlier this week, state House Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Morris (D – Mount Vernon) met with a group of school board directors from the Orcas Island School District. Their message: “We need help.” Due to a perfect storm of high gas prices devouring district funds and a need to fund teacher cost-of-living adjustments, the directors are facing some tough choices ahead, which may even include laying off some staff members.

“In response, Rep. Morris will bring their concerns tonight to the Speaker of the House Frank Chopp to discuss the prospect of a corrective course of action and gauge support amongst legislative leaders. According to Morris, one option might include freeing up funds administratively to cover cost overruns for school districts in the area hit hardest by budget shortfalls.”