By Bill Keim
The Washington Association of School Administrators appreciates the passionate advocacy state Superintendent Randy Dorn has provided in seeking the ample school funding required by our state constitution.
Dorn’s latest effort in that regard involves a lawsuit against seven school districts for the use of local levy funds to enhance employee compensation. While WASA appreciates Dorn’s motivation in bringing this action, we are concerned that it misdirects attention from the Legislature where it belongs, while creating an impression of wrongdoing by school district leaders.
In McCleary, the court was clear that fully funding basic education for Washington’s children is the state’s first and foremost responsibility under our state constitution. And employee compensation is the single largest cost of operating our public schools. Since 1987, under the provisions of RCW 28A.400.200, the Legislature has allowed school districts to enhance teacher salaries for additional time, responsibilities or incentives, called TRI. In that same year, the Legislature doubled the amount of levy funds school districts could raise, and they have increased that levy lid twice since then. In 2010, the Legislature further expanded the TRI provisions to allow salary enhancement for innovation.
As a result of these changes, the percent of educator salaries funded by the state has declined from 99 percent in 1987 to 77 percent in 2013. WASA members agree fully with the state Supreme Court’s conclusion about that trend:
“… the increase in school districts’ levy capacity over the years reflects the growing need to fill the gap between state allocations and the actual cost of providing the program of basic education. Reliance on levy funding to finance basic education was unconstitutional 30 years ago in Seattle School District, and it is unconstitutional now.”
Clearly, the solution to this problem lies with the Legislature. Yet despite two court rulings, multiple orders, and daily fines which now total nearly $30 million, the Legislature has not yet acted to address salaries—one of the biggest pieces of this puzzle.
In the meantime, school districts are whipsawed between inadequate state resources, aggressive bargaining, and the need to attract qualified teachers in the midst of a historic teacher shortage. Now added to those pressures, Dorn’s lawsuit claims they have misused levy funds to pay teacher salaries — in spite of the fact this practice has been consistent with state laws.
Dorn’s lawsuit doesn’t just throw seven school districts into chaos, it threatens levy passage for all school districts if voters accept his contention that such levies have been used illegally. Addressing this ample funding problem must be the Legislature’s highest priority in the 2017 session. Until that happens, local levy funding is essential in educating Washington’s students and nothing should be done to jeopardize that support!
Bill Keim is executive director of the Olympia-based Washington Association of School Administrators.