Superintendents, lawmakers gather in “historic first” meeting to discuss school funding needs
School boards and superintendents across Pierce County are hoping for some financial relief in the 2019 legislative session in the face of funding challenges.
For the first time, they banded together to present a single list of legislative priorities to local lawmakers in a county-wide meeting Monday night.
Out of 24 lawmakers in Pierce County, 17 attended. Fourteen out of 15 school districts in Pierce County were represented at the meeting.
“It was an opportunity for everybody to talk and listen about the six highest priorities that all of the school districts agreed to,” Bethel School District Superintendent Tom Seigel said. “That’s a historic first, if you want to call it that.”
More than one district official asked lawmakers for help, for issues ranging from transportation funding to recent struggles to pass construction bonds.
To them, legislators had a message: You are heard.
At the meeting, the superintendents spoke on six major goals they want to see addressed:
Increase local enrichment funding
Simple majority for school bonds
Fully fund special education
Fully fund transportation
Fund employee health care
Seigel said the priorities are, in part, continued cleanup from the McCleary decision, a 2012 Supreme Court order that declared the state wasn’t doing enough to fund basic education. The decision prompted legislators to change funding formulas, leaving districts with financial headaches.
Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, is chair of the education committee for the 2019 legislative session and addressed each point made by the districts on Monday. She said the meeting helped lawmakers identify where legislation is working and where it’s not.
“Everything that was mentioned is absolutely, specifically going to be looked at and is being already looked at,” she told The News Tribune. “In fact, while I can’t talk about it yet because we haven’t had the hearing on those bills, there are bills for almost everything that we discussed.”
Seigel said lawmakers were attentive during the meeting.
“Many of them know that these problems exist, so hopefully there will be many opportunities for bipartisan support as we go forward,” he said.
The issue: In the wake of the McCleary decision, the state Legislature limited levies to $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value or $2,500 per student, whichever is lower, creating a loss in local funding, according to district officials.
Proposed solution: District officials propose increasing enrichment (local) levy rate to at least $2,500 per student, which they say would provide equal funding on a per-student basis and “allows local voters to decide to invest in their neighborhood schools.”
Wellman said the legislature is looking at solutions that would distinguish large school districts from small, and what would work for each.
“One size does not fit all. We’re going to try to understand something that can really work across the state,” Wellman said.
Simple majority bonds
The issue: To pass a bond to build new schools, a 60 percent supermajority is required by voters. Districts say the 60 percent requirement is too high, citing 35 school districts in the state that have routinely failed bonds, also known as chronic bond failures.
Proposed solution: District officials are asking lawmakers to reduce the supermajority to a simple majority of 50 percent plus one, or even 55 percent to make it easier for district to pass bonds.
Changing the supermajority requires a constitutional amendment by the Legislature — which would take a simple majority approval by voters and a two-thirds approval by both the Senate and House of Representatives.
Peninsula School District Superintendent Art Jarvis spoke to lawmakers about the district’s struggle to pass a bond, failing in its last six attempts. Jarvis told lawmakers the district is going to lose valued teachers if the problem isn’t fixed.
“I talk to you as elected officials saying, ‘We need help,’” Jarvis said.
Wellman said after the presentation that she “doesn’t know” about a simple majority, but that that lawmakers are working to “address something that can make it better.”
Gov. Jay Inslee told The News Tribune editorial board last week that he supports lowering the standard and would sign a bill that does so.
The issue: The state does not fully fund all costs of special education through its existing funding formula, leaving districts to make up the difference through levy funding.
Proposed solution: Officials say special education should be fully funded as “part of the state’s obligation to fully fund basic education.”
Sumner-Bonney Lake School District Superintendent Laurie Dent said the district sometimes shuts down the central office to get extra money to pay for the costs of special education.
“Our kids are coming to us with higher needs than ever,” Dent said. “And when a student comes to you with a feeding tube or a learning disability and the amount of money you get is the same for that child, something doesn’t make sense.”
Wellman acknowledged that legislators know they “have to put more money in special education.”
Inslee’s budget, which was unveiled Dec. 13, shows an increase in funding for special education needs. That includes $51 million to fund a program that “reimburses districts for extraordinary expenditures on services to students with the highest-cost special education needs;” $94 million toward a new funding structure; and $1 million to “to study special education goals, services and outcomes.”
The issue: Transportation costs have exceeded funding received from the state.
Proposed solution: Request full funding for transportation from the state.
Eatonville School District Superintendent Krestin Bahr said one-third of the district’s cost for getting students to and from school is not funded by the state .
“I’ve had people say, ‘Can’t you just drop them off?’ We cannot drop the children off in the woods and have them walk two or three miles home. We cannot do that. That’d be morally wrong,” Bahr said.
The issue: The state’s current funding formula, implemented in 2017, ties teacher salaries to housing costs. Lawmakers hoped the formula would help districts “offer competitive wages,” as reported by The Seattle Times reporter Neal Morton.
Districts with lower housing values struggle to compete with surrounding districts and say the formula “assumes that teachers live in the district where they work” and “creates huge wage disparities” ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 per teacher.
Proposed solution: Districts propose adjusting the regionalization factor “based on an area-wide workforce model rather than the current district-by-district formula.”
The issue: The state’s current proposal does not address health care coverage for part-time employees — a huge cost for districts that have a majority of part-time employees. The proposal also does not cover levy- and federally funded employees.
Proposed solution: Districts suggest the state covers the cost of the state-mandated employee benefit plan for all district employees.