School leaders, teachers sort through the McCleary solution

OLYMPIA — If you care about schools and taxes, prepare for a period of uncertainty as educators come to grips with big changes lawmakers made in the way education is paid for in Washington.

A 120-page bill sent to the governor Friday aims to ensure the state lives up to its responsibility to provide every school district with enough money to pay teachers, staff and administrators, and deliver a full program of basic education to 1.1 million students.

It represents the lawmakers’ most complete, and they hope final, response to the state Supreme Court, which in 2012 found Washington’s school funding system unconstitutional and demanded it be fixed.

When the House and Senate each passed House Bill 2242 Friday, those in the education establishment, from teachers to the state superintendent of public instruction, were trying to digest the details and assess its impacts.

“Obviously we’re grateful they came to a conclusion, finally, and now we’re just trying to figure out what it really means,” said Everett schools superintendent Gary Cohn.

A similar situation exists down the road in Mukilteo.

“We are in the midst of studying it right now,” said Andy Muntz, a spokesman for the Mukilteo School District. “It will take time to go through the details to find out what it means for us.”

Jared Kink, president of the Everett Education Association, was at the Capitol Thursday when details seeped out ahead of the release of the legislation.

“I am hesitant to pass judgment on the bill because there are so many unknowns,” he said. “There are a lot of problems and contradictions that are going to have to be resolved. I don’t know what to tell (members) because I’m so confused.”

In the court decision known as McCleary, justices made clear the state needed to provide ample funding for education from a reliable and sustainable source of revenue, and to make sure school districts no longer rely on local property tax levies to pay employee salaries and other basic expenses. They want the state to comply by Sept. 1, 2018.

With this new bill, lawmakers are confident they’ve done what they need to do. They agreed on a property tax increase to raise the money to send to districts. They crafted new rules limiting the use of local levies.

There also are directives on how districts track the use of local dollars. Lawmakers even put in provisions to limit the size of future pay hikes for some well-paid teachers, which could be an issue in several Snohomish County districts where veteran instructors are among the highest paid in the state.

Under the agreement, the state will put an additional $7.3 billion into public schools in the next four years, of which $1.8 billion will arrive in the 2017-19 budget cycle that began Saturday. Much of this cycle’s funding will go to cover employee salaries the districts have been paying.

Most of the new state funding — $4.1 billion in the next four years — will come from hiking the state property tax to $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. That is an 81-cent increase from this year’s rate.

The bill imposes a new cap on what districts can raise from levies. The maximum amount of maintenance and operations levies will be $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value or $2,500 per pupil, whichever is less. It’s unlikely that districts with high property values will be able to charge the full $1.50.

While lawmakers repeatedly cited the $7.3 billion in floor speeches Friday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said the actual amount injected into the system likely will be less.

Capping local levies means around $3 billion to $4 billion less in local dollars for the system as a whole, he said. The state would wind up adding a billion dollars or so each year.

“It’s good. It’s positive. It’s a little more muted than the euphoria,” he said. “I think they can walk confidently to the court and say, ‘We put our best foot forward.’ ”

The new caps on maintenance and operations levies are a critical concern for school district officials. They already are doing the math to determine if the amount of money the state is promising to provide will match or exceed the amount they expect to lose in local dollars.

They also are waiting on Reykdal to develop rules on how the money can be spent.

Time is of the essence. Many districts will be asking voters to approve a local levy next February and need to know what they can and can’t ask for.

“It will be tricky to explain it to voters,” Muntz said.

That’s not the only change. With the state planning to shoulder the responsibility of paying teachers, lawmakers decided to stop using a formula that linked levels of state funding with the experience level of a school’s teachers. Lawmakers got rid of the statewide Salary Allocation Model and called on Reykdal to develop a format for districts to consider using in local bargaining.

This legislation attempts to fundamentally overhaul the financing of public schools. It will take time to sort out, said Dan Steele, government relations director for the Washington Association of School Administrators. That is the statewide voice for superintendents.

“It’s a huge deal,” he said. “There is some good, some bad and a whole bucket load of questions. We’ve been trying to get answers. They’re not giving us the truth because they don’t know what it is.”

Getting rid of salary formulas alone, he said, could cause “chaos” for negotiations with teachers on new contracts.

It’s also a wrinkle that could prompt teacher unions to forgo their typical three-year contracts in favor of one-year agreements to see what shakes out. Many of the legislation’s major compensation-related changes go into effect Sept. 1, 2018.

In the Marysville School District, negotiations are scheduled this summer. Randy Davis, president of the Marysville Education Association, was reviewing the funding plan Friday afternoon and said he did not yet have a full picture of what it means locally.

The Snohomish Education Association also is engaged in getting a new contract.

Justin Fox-Bailey, association president, said he can’t predict the law’s impact. Until it’s better understood how much money can be generated from local levies and the rules for spending it, he’s worried there will be too many barriers for schools to access local money for local needs.

“I literally don’t know what the state’s rules are going to mean at the local level, and I don’t think they (legislators) do, either,” he said.

While this new legislation is an improvement for schools, he and Everett’s Kink doubt the court will find it adequate.

It does not fully fund schools, partly because it fails to invest money to reduce class sizes in fourth through 12th grade, they said. And it phases in salary increases rather than resolving that question by the court-imposed deadline, they said. As for the change in tax levy dollars, they said it will perpetuate inequities between districts.

“It shouldn’t be coming down to literally the last day of the biennium for them to once again not go far enough,” Fox-Bailey said. “Educators have been upset about this for years. My son was a kindergartner when the lawsuit was filed, and he’s going to be a freshman in high school next year. That’s the state’s timeline.”

At union meetings around the state this past spring, teachers warned they might strike this fall, depending on what lawmakers passed. Now the timeline may be pushed back a year to when most of the new rules take effect.

“I think a lot of battles now will move from the Legislature to the districts,” Kink said. “We are going to try to meet the needs of the students while we battle over the interpretation of the law.”

Herald writers Kari Bray and Eric Stevick contributed to this report.

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

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