Proposals create uncertainty for Snohomish County schools

OLYMPIA — There is no lack of numbers predicting what the state may spend in the next couple years to adequately fund public schools.

There’s also no agreement on what those numbers will mean for the budgets of 295 school districts, the education of 1.1 million students, and the pocketbooks of millions of Washington taxpayers.

Spreadsheets projecting how much money schools could receive under competing House and Senate funding proposals piled up last week as Democratic and Republican lawmakers positioned themselves for weeks, if not months, of negotiations.

Meanwhile school leaders began to pore through numbers spread out in rows and columns trying to assess the effects on their districts.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions to sort through,” said Jeff Moore, executive director of finance and business services for the Everett School District. “There’s so much variation in the numbers that school districts don’t have a means to test them with confidence. We don’t have the details to know how this pans out over time.”

Some education officials said they worry those negotiations will move behind closed doors before a thorough public vetting of the assumptions and calculations underpinning the projections in the two legislative proposals.

There’s concern that even if districts wind up with more money in the next couple of years, those increases won’t be sufficient to keep pace with inflation in the long haul. And there’s concern lawmakers will focus on dollars and cents and not pursue reforms needed to ensure long-term equity between rural and urban districts.

“Schools come out with more money with all of the plans from a strictly financial point of view,” said Sultan schools Superintendent Dan Chaplik. “I really want them to fix a band-aided and broken system.”

Deadline looms

Lawmakers are attempting this session to put in place all the pieces needed to ensure the state is paying the full cost of basic education starting with the 2018 school year. That’s the deadline set in 2012 by the state Supreme Court in the McCleary decision.

In their ruling, justices concluded the state’s under-funding of schools violated the Washington Constitution. They also demanded the state — the Legislature and governor — end school districts’ reliance on money from local school levies to cover what the state is supposed to pay.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed its funding plan Feb. 1 and the Democratic majority in the House is expected to approve its proposal as early as this week.

Comparing their impact on districts side-by-side isn’t easy because the plans rely on different methods of collecting and distributing money starting with the 2018 school year.

House Democrats propose putting $1.6 billion more into education in the next budget for McCleary expenses and covering the costs with unspecified new taxes or increases in existing ones.

They allocate those dollars through the prototypical school model that the state has used to distribute money to schools since 2011. In a nutshell, dollars get sent to districts based on a formula that assumes that a certain level of staffing and resources are needed to operate a “prototypical” elementary, middle or high school. The ratios of teachers and staff per student are spelled out in law.

Republicans scrap that model and invest around $1.8 billion through a newly created formula based on the number and characteristics of students. That money would come from a new statewide property tax levy earmarked for schools and unspecified sources, likely state budget reserves.

The GOP plan promises to provide no less than $12,500 per pupil for every district and actually projects the statewide average will be $13,207 in the 2018-19 school year. Today, the statewide average is $11,870 per student, according to their figures.

On the matter of local levies, House Democrats leave the existing system mostly intact. Local property tax levies are retained and a statewide cap of 24 percent is set in 2021. Districts with rates above that, such as Everett, would be required to scale back. Senate Republicans would end local levies in 2019 and allow them to restart in 2020 with a 10 percent cap.

And while the House plan retains levy equalization payments, the GOP approach eliminates them and folds the money into overall school spending.

Biggest loser

What all this means for the bottom line of school districts in Snohomish County sometimes depends on what row or column you look at in a spreadsheet.

Consider the Senate plan’s treatment of the Everett School District.

In one column, Republicans contend that if their new funding formula were in place today, Everett would have received $3.1 million more local, state and federal funds, which works out to $160 more per student.

The columns that concern Moore, however, show how the district would fare under the Senate plan in 2019, the year Republicans do away entirely with local levies.

When you compare the amount Republicans dial in for Everett against what the district could collect from all sources under current laws — which assumes local levy dollars — the district would take in $6.8 million less.

That’s the biggest projected loss suffered by any district in the state and works out to roughly $353 less per student.

“There are lots of columns,” Moore said of the spreadsheets for the GOP plan. “The one I’m focusing on is the one that says ‘Winners and Losers’ and we’re the biggest loser.”

It’s a similar story for the Marysville and Mukilteo school districts, which would wind up with $3.5 million and $1.07 million less, respectively.

Mixed results

Elsewhere in Snohomish County, the outcome could be different.

For the Sultan School District, the GOP plan is expected to generate $963,577 more dollars than what could be collected under existing law. It could mean $6.84 million more for Monroe School District, $5.35 million for Lake Stevens and $2.5 million for Snohomish. Edmonds and Granite Falls could get more funding in 2019 than under terms of current laws, according to the GOP calculations.

Meanwhile, the House Democrats’ plan projects every district will receive additional dollars, in some cases lots of additional dollars. That’s because the plan pours money into every district without taking away much, if any, of local revenues they now collect.

An analysis released Thursday by nonpartisan House budget committee staff estimates the Everett School District would receive $20.1 million more in state and local revenue for the 2018-19 school year. That would push funding per student from $12,260 in the current school year to $13,570 in the 2018-19 school year.

In Marysville, it would mean $15.8 million more, moving the per-pupil funding level from $12,680 to $14,260. Sultan stands to collect $3.28 million more to push funding per student to $13,770 from the current $12,130, according to the analysis.

At this stage, school officials who express a preference generally favor the blueprint offered by House Democrats because it relies on the prototypical school model they trust and it includes a “hold harmless” clause to ensure no district ends up collecting fewer dollars than it receives for the current school year.

“I hope (the Senate) will fine-tune its proposal so we can better estimate the impact on the district,” said Mike Sullivan, executive director of finance and operations, Marysville School District. “We like the ‘hold harmless’ clause so that no district will suffer a loss. I don’t think there is that guarantee in the Senate bill. That’s what’s scary.”

Chaplik again cautioned that the Supreme Court’s directive, and the state’s challenge, isn’t solely about pouring money into the existing system. It’s also about retooling it to ensure students in every community, rural and urban, have access to the same resources and opportunities.

“Status quo is a problem,” he said. “I want a systemic fix so we don’t wind up starting the clock on the next (education funding) problem.”

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

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