Threading the needle: public funding of public education | Guest column

Threading the needle: public funding of public education | Guest column

by Tom Baldwin

For the Budget Advisory Committee

Orcas Island School District has some decisions to make in the near future that will have long-term consequences — decisions necessitated by legislative actions taken in response to the McCleary Decision, which required the state of Washington to fully fund public K12 education in the state, and reduce dependence on local property taxes for public school funding.

We have written three times to the Sounder to explain the funding situation; in our last report, we pointed out that the final bills, SB 6362 and SB 6032, largely avoided the negative aspects of the original McCleary bill, HB 2242. Since that time, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has been working with school districts across the state preparing to implement the new law.

At present, we suffer from an enormous deficit of accurate information, making it difficult for districts to develop accurate budgets for the 2018-19 year and beyond. Yet, the law requires districts to prepare and submit a budget plan summary for each of the next four years. OISD has prepared a budget plan based on the prevailing interpretations of the new law, and the school board approved that plan and the budget for 2018-19 on July 26.

The current lack of information, coupled with the desire to see teachers’ salaries increase, presents a dangerous situation. Salary increases given today cannot be reduced if we find next year that we do not have adequate funds to pay the higher salaries. Confusion is increased dramatically by the fact that every district’s situation is different. So, while some districts may see significant increases in total revenue, others will see less dramatic increases. OISD is in the latter situation, largely due to a loss of about $175,000 in the local levy for the 2018-19 year. Note that this loss will grow to $275,000 for the 2019-20 year.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, worked hard to pass SB 6362 and its companion, SB 6032. While several tweaks to these laws might provide clarity and remove remaining unintended negative consequences of the legislation, none is more obvious than the “regionalization” program, which lumps the San Juan Islands together with the Skagit Valley area for purposes of computing cost of living, causing a huge negative impact on funding for teacher salaries. Ranker has called out the absurdity of linking San Juan County with Skagit Valley, but until the legislature fixes this problem, the funding that will follow is not at the appropriate level to enhance teacher salaries to the degree it should be.

Teaching is an honorable profession, and teachers should be compensated commensurate with the importance of their activities. Nonetheless, it is essential that OISD not commit funding that it does not have. I urge teachers and administrators alike to think carefully about the long-term consequences of their actions. If salaries move too high, it will be necessary to decrease teacher numbers to rebalance the budget next year. It is essential that teachers and administrators figure out how the thread this needle. Our kids’ education relies on their wisdom.