Tough choices ahead for Wahluke, Moses Lake and Wilson Creek

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Columbia Basin Herald/file photo School districts may have to make some hard decisions in the wake of the ‘McCleary fix.’

“The immediate impact of the [Basic Education Act of 1977] was a reduced reliance on local levy funds and a substantial increase in state funding to school districts across the state. By 1981, only 8 percent of school district general fund revenues were derived from local levies, down from nearly 37 percent in 1974. Ironically, however, the increase in state funding over time led to an overall shift in resources away from districts with substantial poor and minority student populations, and toward districts educating predominantly white, relatively affluent students.”— Diane Cipollone, “Defining A ‘Basic Education’: Equity and Adequacy Litigation in the State of Washington”, Studies in Judicial Remedies and Public Engagement, Vol. 1, No. 5, December 1998

MOSES LAKE — $6 million.

That’s how much money the Moses Lake School District has decided it needs to cut this school year to make a “down payment” in the event budget reductions are needed over the next four years.

“We continue to make progress, but it’s not an easy fix,” said Moses Lake superintendent Josh Meek. “We don’t get an opportunity to not do certain things. A lot of things are expectations for a school district to do, so you can’t just stop doing those things.”

The cuts amount to 5 percent of the $124.2 million 2018-19 budget the Moses Lake School Board approved last August. And those cuts are only the beginning.

Among the changes brought in by the state legislature’s 2017 “McCleary Fix” — outlined in our two previous stories — school districts were now required to submit four-year budget projections to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

Moses Lake, with its approximately 8,300 full-time students (as of the end of February), expects to maintain a bare surplus in 2019-20 of a little more than $80,000, but slips $12.3 million into deficit in 2020-21 and a further $25.8 million into the red in 2021-22.

In fact, many of the larger school districts in the region that did an honest projection for the next four years (and some didn’t, according to Meek) are forecast to lose around $72 million by the 2021-22 school year, according to figures from the North Central Educational Service District (NCESD), which is based in Wenatchee.

Worst hit are the two largest districts in the ESD — Moses Lake and Wenatchee. The Wenatchee schools are facing a forecast deficit of $8.8 million for 2021-22 and looking to make around $5.2 million in cuts this year.

“In our region, there are 29 school districts, and no two are exactly alike,” said Michelle Price, superintendent of the NCESD and former head of the Moses Lake School District. “There’s not a district in our region that’s not looking at some sort of reduction.”

Price said that districts in the ESD, which stretches from Grant County all the way north to the Canadian border, reflect the relatively high poverty and low property values of the region.

This year, Meek said the Moses Lake School District is trying to identify “more efficient ways of getting the work done” and not filling positions as they become vacant in order to make those cuts.

There is no talk of layoffs. At least not yet, and not this school year. But that could become a reality if state funding remains unchanged.

“It’s no secret in a district budget that is 80 percent tied to people that we’re going to have to look at that in order to get there,” Meek said of layoffs.

“There are plenty of teachers who are concerned about layoffs,” said Jeremy Pitts, president of the Moses Lake Education Association. “It comes down to priorities. Do we prioritize adults working with students?”

There are whispers of layoffs in the Wahluke School District as well, which covers the southern reaches of Grant County. With a little more than 2,300 enrolled students, the Wahluke district’s three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school’s 2018-19 budget of $36 million will spend a little less than $200,000 of reserve funds to stay in the black this year.

“We did get an increase in our state apportionment for teacher salaries,” said Wahluke School District Superintendent Bob Eckert, “but we are still losing money. We are hoping that the state legislators will come up with better funding systems for the state.”

The district had cash on hand of $4.9 million at the beginning of the school year. If nothing changes, that surplus will dwindle to around $214,000, by the 2021-22 school year.

“If it (state funding) is not adjusted by next year, we will have to lay people off,” Eckert said. “We will have to have larger class sizes and lay off teachers, classifieds and administrations. We will have to cut across the board. It will be very hard.”

The tiny Wilson Creek School District — with one school and 142 students — is also going to spend $150,000 of reserve cash to maintain its $3.5 million budget.

“Our cash reserve is going to take a pretty good hit this year,” said superintendent Laura Christian.

Christian said the legislature “have left it wide open as for what exactly is enrichment,” but they are clear on what counts as basic education. Wilson Creek officials may decide they need more teachers than allowed under state school funding formulas in certain areas, Christian said, but they can’t spend enrichment levy money to pay for it.

“How much can you actually fund for that $1.50?” she added.

NEXT WEEK: But not all school districts are facing oblivion.

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