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A trio of factors have combined to take a bite out of the Ellensburg School District’s 2020-2021 budget.

According to Ellensburg School District Executive Director of Business Services Brian Aiken, “we happen to be the perfect storm here in Ellensburg because it hurt us on three fronts.”

The “three fronts” that Aiken talks about are the reduction of local tax levies, the elimination of the staff mix factor and the $1.6 million the district will have to take out of the general/levy fund to pay for the state’s health insurance plan.

The reduction of the tax levy came in response to the state Legislature’s actions to come into compliance with the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling to fully fund K-12 education. Determining that schools’ districts in Washington were relying too much on local tax levies, it was decided that it was the responsibility of the state of Washington to do a better job of funding schools. The issue with this was it eliminated a large chunk of money the district raised through levies, capping levies at $1.50 per 1,000 of assessed value.

Before McCleary, ESD levy rate was $3.40 per $1,000 of assessed value. In its first post-McCleary levy request, the district followed then-state requirements on levy limits and received approval for a four-year $1.50 per $1,000 assessed value levy. Due to this decision, the district will lose about $2 million in tax revenue. Aiken said Ellensburg was a larger levy district compared to other districts in the state, so this cap hurt Ellensburg more than others.

Legislators have since revised the levy cap to $2.50 per $1,000. Aiken said he believes this is because legislators have realized the cap didn’t have the intended effect on districts.

“That’s the rub with McCleary, the whole idea was supposed to limit and reduce the reliance on local levies, and we find ourselves having to go back to that scenario where we are going to have to raise that levy amount,” Aiken said. “We may get up above two bucks a thousand, but we are never going to get to that $3.40 per $1,000.”

HEALTH CARE COSTS

The other issue for the district is that the School Employee Benefits Board (SEBB) is taking over the health care for district staff. Aiken said this was a departure from the way they have done benefits before. All staff will be guaranteed full-time benefits if they work the 600 hours needed. Aiken said the issue was that the district has to pay for all employees even those that have denied the insurance.

Superintendent Jinger Haberer said about 50 staff have denied and have no need of the insurance plan, but the district still has to pay $600,000 for the staff that doesn’t need it. Total for the district, this will cost $1.6 million.

The third “front” is that McCleary indirectly caused ESD funding for experienced teachers to drop. The district now receives a flat rate of $66,520 for certified staff. The average salary for certified staff is $75,000.

Haberer said the district will pay for these increases in expenses through the general/levy fund. The catch is that once the money in the fund is gone, it’s gone. All district money goes into the general fund, which acts as a district piggy bank, which the district is having to break to pay for recent changes.

Aiken and Haberer said the general fund will be able cover the district for the next school year, although there will be “incremental adjustments” made to spending. However, if this continues, they will have to make much more severe spending cuts. Haberer said 81 percent of the district’s general budget is salaries and benefits for staff.

Aiken and Haberer said the best way to help the district is to contact legislators and let them know this is an issue.

“Folks can help us by getting those messages out to our legislators. This has got to be fixed and I don’t know how they are going to fix it right now,” Aiken said. “I mean the cows are so far out of the barn that I don’t know how they could get them back in.”

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