Hopeful but uncertain about the future of school funding

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Columbia Basin Herald/file photo Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, speaking at the Republican Party’s Lincoln Day fundraiser in Moses Lake in February.

“In enacting this legislation, the legislature intends to continue to review, evaluate, and revise the definition and funding of basic education in order to continue to fulfill the state obligation under Article IX of the state Constitution. The legislature also intends to continue to strengthen and modify the structure of the entire K-12 educational system, including nonbasic education programmatic elements, in order to build the capacity to anticipate and support potential future enhancements to basic education as the educational needs of our citizens continue to evolve.” — Title 28A, Chapter 150, Section 198 of the Revised Code of Washington.

MOSES LAKE — There are probably few new legislators who can hit the ground running on education the way Alex Ybarra can.

A longtime member of the Quincy School Board (and the board’s current vice president) and graduate of Quincy High School, Ybarra was appointed to fill the seat of Matt Manweller after his resignation in January.

Ybarra is also the vice president of the board of directors of the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA), and has spent some time on that organization’s legislative committee, helping craft recommendations and vet suggested changes and improvements to the state’s education system.

“I’m still on the school board,” Ybarra said on Friday afternoon after a long and busy week during this year’s legislative session. “I’m still trying to figure out if I will (stay on the school board) after the session.”

“It depends on how much time I have,” he added.

And as he examines the solutions to the problems plaguing many of the state’s school districts following the legislature’s 2017 “McCleary Fix” — and outlined in the four previous stories in this series — wafting through the halls of the state Capitol building, Ybarra is clear on the one thing he doesn’t want.

“I’m from Central Washington, and no one wants their taxes raised,” the Republican legislator said. “I just want to find a solution that doesn’t raise taxes.”

But he’s not real clear on what he does want. No one is.

“Right now I’ve not heard of all the different fixes,” he said. “No one’s really publishing what they should do.”

Maybe because the scale of the problem is so staggering. According to the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA), capping local levies at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value (or $2,500 per student, whichever is less, and in some very high property value districts like Seattle, it’s less) has reduced school revenue statewide by $1.1 billion.

It’s not just a problem for rural or smaller-town school districts. Among the worst hit is the 29,000-student Spokane School District. With a budget of $465 million for the 2018-19 school year, the district is forecasting a deficit of $11.3 next year and expects to be running a staggering $112.9 million in the red by 2021-22, according to OSPI statistics.

Ybarra said some of the problem is the result of substantial pay raises teachers across the state in 2018 — for an average of 12 percent statewide — right after the state added another $1 billion to the education budget.

“It was kind of a perfect storm,” Ybarra said. “School districts only had a month to figure out the finances, all of the unions were bargaining, they had not had a raise in a while, so many paid raises.”

Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said the raises were an essential part of complying with the Supreme Court’s decision in McCleary v. State.

“The court was clear, we needed competitive wages for educators, and we were not providing that,” Wood said. “That’s why we have pretty substantive salary increase.”

The newly created School Employees Benefits Board (SEBB), which was designed to reduce insurance costs by centralizing school employee health and dental benefits, has also turned out to be more expensive than envisioned.

“They said that the new insurance was supposed to be cheaper,” said Roger Trail, superintendent of the Royal School District, which was hit with nearly $250,000 in additional insurance costs. “It’s not. It is more expense out of the school district’s pocket. We have to provide full insurance to everyone in the district, including part-time employees.”

Ybarra said the SEBB may end up costing the state an additional $970 million this year.

“Part of that is coming from the levies, but the only way we can pay for it is to move money from other things or to create a tax to pay for it,” he said.

One answer is to lift the cap on the local levy rate. A state senate bill to raise the levy limit to 20 percent of a district’s total budget or $3,500 per student (it had been at 28 percent prior to 2017), plus boost state assistance based on local levies, failed to get out of a Senate committee, but could still re-appear later in the session.

But asking voters in a place like Moses Lake to approve yet more taxes for education — especially after the yearlong fight following 2017’s closely-fought school construction bond — is a lot to ask.

“There’s resistance to additional taxes in Moses Lake,” said Josh Meek, superintendent of the Moses Lake School District. “If the solution comes out to tax at higher rates, that’s going to be a very difficult community challenge for us.”

There is also a proposal working its way through the legislature to increase state funding for guidance counselors, social workers, nurses and psychologists at public schools. If passed, the measure would cost $51 million this year and $141 million next year.

And Ybarra said “everyone wants to” increase state support for special education — long criticized as underfunded — by “maybe $100 million.”

It’s a lot of money — $1 billion, $100 million, $50 million — and it quickly adds up. And how it’s raised... no one’s quite sure.

Turns out, fulfilling the state’s “paramount duty” is a costly endeavor, a question less of court rulings and law than of what Washington state voters want their schools to provide versus what they are willing or able to pay for. There are few clear or easy answers.

Except to keep teaching kids.

“We are still hopeful there will be some sort of relief in the future,” Meek said.

Rachal Pinkerton and Emry Dinman contributed to this story.

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