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Last year, the realities of the McCleary decision were just starting to make themselves known. This year, the realities are becoming a little more tangible.

In 2012 the state Supreme Court issued the McCleary ruling said that the state was violating its Constitution by failing to fully fund basic education for children in the state. The Legislature came up with a plan to come into compliance with that ruling, but several aspects of that plan left some districts in tougher spots than others.

Local districts like Ellensburg, Cle Elum-Roslyn, Kittitas and Thorp lost out in several different ways, including capping levies at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Because of the demographics, Kittitas County districts also don’t receive much funding for Learning Assistance Programs, bilingual programs, and migrant funding or school food services.

A new statewide school employee benefits program also might cost the district an additional $500,000 to $1 million, based on how it is laid out right now.

Previously, each school district had the ability to negotiate its own benefits package, and were given a set allocation from the state. If a district wanted to get a more pricey package, teachers could pay for it out of their own pocket.

Now, starting in 2020, the School Employees Benefits Board (SEBB) will administer health insurance and other benefits to all K-12 school districts.

The problem with the program as it stands right now, according to Ellensburg’s business director Brian Aiken, is the funding model. It will allocate funding based on full-time equivalents, but since school districts hire a lot of part-time employees, the district won’t be able to prorate the benefits by hours.

“Everybody over 630 hours a year gets full-time benefits,” Aiken said. “Even if they choose to waive it, we still have to pay for it.”

Aiken said the district has always prorated benefits, because it seems unfair that someone working three hours a day gets the same benefits package as someone working eight, and since the district has to pay full benefits to all those part-time employees, it leads to the extra cost.

All these factors have districts in similar situations around the state falling well short of budgets they are used to having funded through levies. Fortunately for Ellensburg, a fund balance of a little over $6 million will help it fight off more drastic measures for a few years while it both waits for the Legislature to fix the issues, as well as prepare itself for tightening its own belt.

Spending down the fund balance

Ellensburg’s plan is to spend $3.6 million out of its fund balance in the 2018-19 school year, and $1.8 million out of its fund balance the next two years to be able to operate somewhat similar to how it has in recent years. According Ellensburg superintendent Jinger Haberer, other school districts without a large fund balance aren’t as lucky.

“It’s putting us in a position where we’re still going to need to look at decreasing our overall funding, but certainly not having to take some of the same drastic measures other districts are needing to take,” Haberer said.

According to the Spokesman Review, three districts in the Spokane area are declaring financing emergencies, which is the first step before cutting back on hundreds of jobs.

“That’s happening all around us,” Aiken said.

With that three-year window Ellensburg’s fund balance is affording it, district officials will be both lobbying in Olympia for a more permanent fix, while at the same time working with teachers and staff to see where money can be saved.

Haberer said transparency and communication are going to be a big emphasis during the process. The district is currently holding meetings with all of the affected parties.

“How can we really work together as a strong team going into the next bargaining season… so that we can look at the numbers together and come up with decisions that fully support the needs of our students,” Haberer said.

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