Big raises now may mean deficits later for public schools

District leaders and teachers will push lawmakers for changes to stabilize budgets and avoid layoffs.

OLYMPIA — Classes are set to begin in the Stanwood-Camano School District Monday, marking the end of a raucous season of collective bargaining in Snohomish County.

Districts received an injection of state dollars for educator salaries — a mandate from the McCleary school-funding lawsuit. That led to teachers negotiating new contracts containing average raises this year in excess of 10 percent.

Teachers in the Edmonds School District secured the first big deal July 30, and their contract wasn’t even up for renewal. The Edmonds Education Association and district agreed to rewrite the current contract and use the state money to hike pay for beginning teachers by 19 percent to nearly $63,000 and for the top pay level by 13 percent to almost $114,000.

Throughout August, as talks in other districts intensified, teachers held rallies and packed school board meetings to voice their demands for higher pay. With contracts expiring Aug. 31, tensions escalated and teachers in several districts authorized strikes. In Snohomish County, only Stanwood-Camano actually hit the picket line.

Agreements started lining up at the end of August and beginning of September, culminating in Friday’s resolution of the multi-day Stanwood-Camano strike.

With the new contracts, beginning teachers in Snohomish County can count on earning at least $54,000 in their first year regardless of which district they choose. At the other end of the scale, veteran teachers in Everett will now earn $120,776, maintaining their position as the highest paid classroom instructors in the state.

“Teachers are finally getting paid professional wages, which is really cool,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, the lead Senate budget writer and an author of the McCleary-inspired overhaul.

But there’s a financial downside, district officials warn. There are other McCleary-related revisions in law that are reducing resources. District officials and teachers will try to convince lawmakers to remedy the situation in the 2019 legislative session.

That starts with the rules governing local levies.

Lawmakers came up with all those additional state dollars by increasing the statewide property tax rate. At the same time, they capped what districts can collect from local levies at $2,500 per student or $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value, whichever is less. The reduction kicks in next year.

District officials say reducing the local levy means they will lose out on millions of dollars for salaries and programs not covered by the state. Cuts in programs or layoffs are likely, absent reforms, they said.

“Unless there is legislative relief or legislative adjustments to the formula to allow us to collect what the voters have approved, we are looking at layoffs in the 2019-20 school year,” said Jeff Moore, executive director of finance and business services for the Everett School District. “We are going to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Jason Thompson, interim superintendent of the Marysville School District, said the $1.50 brings in less than $1,500 per student right now. If the state made changes to allow the district to collect up to $2,500 per student, it would help.

“Our message to legislators is we’ve got to do something with the levy swap,” he said.

Rolfes is well aware of the concerns.

“I am not looking at a McCleary rewrite,” she said. “I am open to tweaking it along the way.”

Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, said he’s personally open to getting rid of the cap on local levies but not writing schools a larger check from the state treasury.

“It seems to me they are setting up a situation where if we don’t act … they will have to lay off teachers,” he said. “I don’t think there is any appetite for new money for salaries.”

In an interview with the Washington Policy Center, Palumbo appeared to blame district leaders for putting themselves in this position.

“What concerns me are recent comments in the press from superintendents who are acknowledging that they are making unsustainable budget decisions and that the Legislature is going to have to bail them out in the next several years,” he said. “I think that is a recipe for disaster ….

“There is no appetite in Olympia to bail out school boards and superintendents who make bad budget decisions.”

Districts also will push the state to increase funding for special education. Although the state did provide more dollars in this area, it is not enough.

Rep. Gerry Pollett, D-Seattle, said special education costs represent a good chunk of the projected deficit in the Seattle School District. More state money could ease the situation. Removing the 1 percent limit on annual increases in the local property tax levy also could close the gap, he suggested.

Lawmakers need to continue working on the funding because many districts are “gasping for air and in danger of drowning” from the changes, he said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee said the offices know the conversation on public education didn’t end with the lawsuit.

“The Legislature will need to look at the funding process in the 2019 session,” wrote Tara Lee, Inslee’s deputy communications director, in an email. “There will be a number of discussions that will happen, and I am sure that the governor and our staff will be part of them.”

The Supreme Court set a timeline of six years to transform public school funding. Rolfes noted that lawmakers waited until the last two years to tackle the salary and levy matters.

“We took it to the end of the game,” she said. “If we had gotten this done in 2016, it wouldn’t have been this messy.”

School district teacher contracts

Thanks to an injection of state money, teachers this year negotiated big raises in almost all school districts serving Snohomish County.

  2017-18 2018-19 % change
Arlington Minimum $51,109 $57,000 11.5%
  Maximum $99,286 $111,500 12.3%
Darrington Minimum $47,843 $55,352 15.7%
  Maximum $90,175 $104,329 15.7%
Edmonds Minimum $52,688 $62,688 19.0%
  Maximum $101,022 $114,272 13.1%
Everett Minimum $47,928 $54,677 14.1%
  Maximum $103,967 $120,776 16.2%
Granite Falls Minimum $46,722 $53,010 13.5%
  Maximum $88,702 $100,594 13.4%
Lake Stevens Minimum $49,214 $58,000 17.9%
  Maximum $95,154 $112,984 18.7%
Lakewood Minimum $49,705 $54,320 9.3%
  Maximum $93,686 $107,385 14.6%
Marysville Minimum $50,495 $53,408 5.8%
  Maximum $98,741 $111,476 12.9%
Monroe Minimum $50,216 $54,388 8.3%
  Maximum $96,402 $112,280 16.5%
Mukilteo Minimum $51,856 $58,481 12.8%
  Maximum $99,016 $112,396 13.5%
Northshore Minimum $51,077 TBD*
  Maximum $97,548 TBD*
Snohomish Minimum $50,628 $58,000 14.6%
  Maximum $99,679 $115,018 15.4%
Stanwood-Camano Minimum $49,385 $55,555 12.5%
  Maximum $93,082 $106,113 14.0%

* To be determined in future negotiations.
Data unavailable: Index, Sultan.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

The chart with this story has been modified to correct the 2017-18 figures for the Lake Stevens School District and the maximum figures for the Snohomish School District. Earlier provided numbers were incorrect.

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