Voters are betting on education

By ERIC STEVICK

Herald Writer

If only all challenges were this delicious: School districts across Washington must figure out how to spend unexpected millions of dollars in the years ahead to improve student achievement.

The windfall comes after voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 728 Tuesday.

I-728 funnels state property tax and lottery revenues into a new Student Achievement Fund and provides a new funding stream for kindergarten through 12th grade and higher education school construction.

What’s clear from interviews with school leaders across Snohomish County is that no one was counting on the infusion of cash. Nor have decisions been made about how to invest it.

"We didn’t budget for it," said Gary Toothaker, superintendent of the Mukilteo School District, which stands to gain more than $20 million during the next five years. "We have chatted about it a little bit, but we have not gotten down to serious consideration. … There certainly will be significant resources available."

Specifically, I-728 gives school districts money and flexibility to:

  • Reduce class sizes in kindergarten through fourth grade with selected reductions in higher grades, such as high school writing.

  • Provide more learning opportunities, such as all-day, tuition-free kindergarten, before- and after-school classes, weekend school programs, tutoring and summer school.

  • Increase training for teachers.

  • Provide early assistance for children who need pre-kindergarten help.

    I-728 recognizes that different communities have different needs, and it gives local control to school districts to decide how to spend the money.

    "I would say that it would most likely vary from school to school," said Jeff Riddle, deputy superintendent for the Everett School District.

    Lisa Macfarlane, an I-728 organizer, said there are not so obvious ways to invest the money. To reduce the student-to-teacher ratio, for instance, a school may decide to have two teachers in a single classroom.

    Districts should not yet have specific plans for the money, Macfarlane said, because those decisions must go through a public hearing process.

    Each year, school districts will be required to report how the money is spent and describe the progress the district makes in increasing student achievement, as measured by tough new state standards exams and other assessments.

    I-728 will give districts more resources to identify what areas and which students need more help and to target those needs, said Marla Miller, executive director of business, support and technology for the Edmonds School District.

    Riddle said he doesn’t know how much school districts will get. While districts will receive new money as a result of I-728, the Legislature could cut money for existing programs.

    "What we are struggling with is the net amount of revenues we could get from this," he said.

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