State reduces Tacoma schools to financial losers

Students enter a classroom at Wainwright Intermediate School in the Tacoma school district.
Students enter a classroom at Wainwright Intermediate School in the Tacoma school district. News Tribune file photo, 2016

Tacoma Public Schools faces an unnecessary, looming financial disaster, and I’m upset.

The seven-year-long state Supreme Court case called McCleary required our state to fully fund education. In June, the Supreme Court decided funding changes made by the 2018 Legislature had finally solved the problem. Case dismissed.

That was a mistake.

The new funding formula created winners and losers. Some school districts – mostly in wealthy communities – won big financial windfalls. Districts like Tacoma and Yakima with high-poverty urban neighborhoods lose funding in both the short term and long term.

How bad is it?

Tacoma Public Schools will get $389 less per student beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

That, plus inflation in costs of doing business and built-in pay increases in collective bargaining agreements, equates to about a $25 million budget deficit for us next year.

Without a legislative fix in 2019, we face significant staff and programs cuts in 2019-2020.

Here’s how the new funding formula goes wrong:

1. Voters have supported our students by approving school operations levies generating about $86 million per year, which pays for more teachers, nurses, librarians, counselors and security than the state funds.

It also supplements staff salaries, pays for preschools and elementary and middle school sports and many other things.

In February, voters renewed the levy, providing $72 million a year. But the state’s new formula limits our local levy to $40 million a year. That’s $32 million less per year than voters said they’d support and $46 million less every year than voters have given us over the past four years.

The state’s funding formula gives us $50 million in so-called new money – but that’s just $4 million a year more than we currently receive in total funding.

Moreover, $14 million of that state money comes with strings attached. The state says we must spend it to expand career and technical education, transportation and other areas not currently our highest priorities.

2. The state formula also includes extra money for districts with higher cost of living. So districts around Seattle get more money to pass along in salaries to teachers and staff while Tacoma gets 5 percent less.

Tacoma has prided itself at being near the top for competitive teachers’ salaries, and it has paid off in recruiting and retaining the best teacher force.

We expected the outcome of the McCleary case to deliver ample and sustainable funding, including much more money for teacher salaries. However, the Legislature’s new formula didn’t raise our overall funding, which harms districts like Tacoma, Yakima and others.

We are now at the bargaining table with our teachers and want to stay competitive in the marketplace.

Two things are restricting us, which will close the salary gap on our competitive edge.

1. In the new law, districts with an average teacher salary below the state average can give big salary increases. But districts such as Tacoma, which already have an average salary above the state average, are limited by the law to no more than a 3.1 percent increase for the 2018-2019 school year.

2. Even if that limit was not in the law, we didn’t get enough state funding to offer more than that, due to the reduced overall funding we received from the state and local levy.

I, and certainly our teachers, expected McCleary would mean more funding for Tacoma, not less.

Our local legislators – Reps. Laurie Jinkins, Jake Fey, Christine Kilduff, Steve Kirby, Dick Muri and Sens. Jeannie Darneille, Steve Conway and Steve O’Ban – have fought for us. However, the solutions for Tacoma and other districts require legislators from across the state to come together to fix the inequities.

Given this reality, my commitment to you is that we will continue to:

Advocate for our students, educators, staff and families.

Work with legislators to fix the funding disparities.

Make prudent and responsible financial plans to prepare for the shortfall in 2019-2020.

Carla Santorno is in her sixth year as superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools.