Legislators consider basic education funding – School board suggests levy lift in the meantime

Our schools are off to an excellent start for a new school year.  For the past two years, the staff, the administrators, the school board and the community have been working on getting us to a healthier place financially. Additionally, the Orcas Island School District board has appointed our current high school principal Barbara Kline as a half-time superintendent. Barbara has been the middle school/high school principal here for more than 15 years and has served our students and staff well. She will continue to be the principal of the high school on a half-time basis, with the result that she will be on campus full-time.

We on the OISD board have also been discussing with the Governor and the local state representatives, the state’s inadequate funding of basic education. Interestingly, the state officials believe that this year’s budget is the “best educational” budget that the Governor and the Legislature have ever produced. Well, we here on Orcas and many other small districts don’t share that enthusiasm.

One of the sources of our funding is a local maintenance and operation levy that we request from our local taxpayers every two years in the form of a ballot measure. The levy is equal to 24 percent of the revenue that we receive from the state and federal funding sources. This levy (about $1 million this year) is limited by law. Our district, like many others, is not only using the levy for maintenance and operation, but we are actually using it to supplement basic educational costs, administrative salaries, special education and other unfunded mandates from the state and the federal government.

The OISD board has been presenting the argument to the state that we want the legislators and the governor to fix the educational funding formulas by redefining what is considered basic education.

The current definition of basic education dates back to the late 1970s and is woefully outdated. For example, there was no technology education, highly capable funding was not existant and universtities are constantly increasing their admitance requirements. We, therefore, are also using this levy to fund advanced placement courses that school districts want to afford their students so they are well prepared to meet the challenges of competing for slots at universities with other high school students from the rest of the country and the world.

We asked the governor and the local legislative representatives to fix three things this session:

1) Increase the levy percentage;

2) Fully fund special education’s actual costs;

3) Fully fund administrative salaries using actual values.

The long-term fix is still to redefine basic education and fully fund it, which could take years to accomplish. The state representatives and the governors have been talking about this since 1983.

Our students cannot wait, and, as school directors, we cannot wait. The schools in Washington are in a funding crisis and the state, whose primary responsibility is to fund education, has appointed another task force to study the situation. More study without concrete solution is not acceptable.

The Orcas Island School Board is proposing that the state should increase the level of the 24 percent cap to 34 percent and leave the burden to local school boards to determine the amount of levy that their voters will approve.

If we are successful in passing a higher levy than the 24 percent, then one half percent of the additional dollar amount collected will be sent to the state to pass along to other needy districts. No other district has to help us; the state does not have to help us – we want to help ourselves.

When the state gets its act together and redefines basic education and fully funds basic education; fully funds special ed at actual cost; fully funds administrative actual costs; and fully funds the imposed mandates, then we can revisit this levy percent discussion – either by reducing it or by keeping it while allowing the local school boards to determine the level of levy requested that will, hopefully, be approved by the local voters. This is fair and equitable.

I will be representing the school board at the next Washington State school Director Association (WSSDA) legislative assembly later this month, on Sept. 26 and 27, and will present our recommendation.

Tony Ghazel is an Orcas Island businessman, member and former President of the Orcas Island School District Board, and father of OISD students.