Morgan Middle School

Morgan Middle School is lit up by a fading sunset in Ellensburg on Thursday.

When school districts around the state submitted their four-year budgets earlier this week, the ramifications of the Legislature’s McCleary plan to fully fund K-12 education started to become painfully apparent.

Not only does the plan not adequately and equitably fund basic education, but it forces a handful of districts including Ellensburg, Kittitas and Thorp to dip into reserves. Thorp Superintendent Andrew Perkins said most school districts carry a reserve of 12 percent of their total budget, and if policies don’t change Thorp will be broke in two years.

“I would love to see any of those budgets that’s black all four years,” new Thorp Superintendent Andrew Perkins said. “I’d like to see one. Send it to me if you find one because I don’t believe it.”

In 2012 the state Supreme Court ruled 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 leave some districts as big winners, and others as big losers.

Levy equalization

Since the Legislature is infusing districts around the state with about $5.5 billion, it also capped the amount districts are allowed to collect through levies at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value. This affects different districts in different ways. In districts with less total property value, the state kicks in a little more money through levy equalization. The problem is, the property poor districts’ levies don’t have very far to come down to $1.50, so they are not losing that much money with the cap, but are seeing a windfall of cash through equalization and the additional state funding that is forthcoming.

On the other hand, because of the cap at $1.50 per $1,000, Ellensburg’s levy is dropping from $7.2 million this year, to $5.2 million next year and $3.2 million the year after that. That levy drop is significant, but the equalization money is not as impactful since the drop is so large.

The levy cap also takes control away from the local districts to spend money on things their taxpayers had previously approved. The same goes for Kittitas, Thorp and Ellensburg, who all fund positions that aren’t necessarily covered under “basic education.”

“We want an art teacher at Thorp K-12, they don’t fund it,” Perkins said. “The levy here pays for that. We fund an extra teacher to keep our class sizes down, which is what appeals to people to come here. That’s a local decision and they’re taking that right out of the hands of the board.”

During Ellensburg’s regular school board meeting on Wednesday, business director Brian Aiken gave a presentation on some of the effects the new funding model will have for ESD. One slide illustrated what the new funding model does for a typical 400-student elementary school.

In the 400-student elementary school example, the state would fund 1.253 principals, .663 librarians, .493 counselors and .076 nurses. Obviously, a school can’t hire .076 of a nurse to keep track of student’s medications, so that’s traditionally where levy money would come in and support those positions. Now that the $1.50 cap is there, it makes it much harder.

“A lot of part-time employees are in that category,” Aiken said. “Without them, we cannot run the school, keep the buildings clean, keep the lunches served. We can’t get the work done at the central office, et cetera, et cetera.”

Salary schedule

Since McCleary promised to fully fund basic education, the idea was teachers salaries could be all paid by the state, therefore freeing up that levy money to be used just on enrichment. In practice, the new salary schedule required by McCleary forces districts like Ellensburg, Kittitas and Thorp to use the majority of state funding on teacher salaries, while at the same time limiting what they can do with levies by capping them at $1.50 per $1,000. What used to be a rather flexible system has now become strict and rigid, leaving rural, isolated districts little room to maneuver.

The new salary schedule has a minimum of $40,000 per year, with a 10 percent increase after five years with a maximum salary of $90,000. The new salary also has a regionalization adjustment which gives more state funding based on areas with high cost of living — another area Kittitas County loses out on.

There are three different levels for regionalization adjustments, giving salary enhancements of 6 percent, 12 percent, 18 percent or even 24 percent for certain high cost areas that will be grandfathered in. The 24 percent areas will be ratcheted down over time to 18 percent. Since Kittitas County is not considered to have high cost of living, none of the districts receive any of that extra money.

Kittitas interim superintendent Rich Stewart said if nothing changes, his district will have to cover salaries with reserves, and at the rate things are going, they would be out of money in two or three years.

“When it’s gone it’s gone,” Stewart said. “It’s just something you save for and try to get up to a certain level for emergency cases, but you can’t use it to pay salaries because it’s not sustainable.”

Ellensburg also loses out on a 4 percent high staff cost adjustment, since the district doesn’t quite meet the threshold for the number of experienced teachers versus non-experienced teachers.

“It’s kind of a combination of those things that cause us to really be a loser in the McCleary case,” Aiken said.

Stewart said McCleary was supposed to make school funding equitable, but he’s not sure how this system is going to accomplish that.

“Nobody in Kittitas County gets any of those extras,” Stewart said, referring to the cost of living enhancements or experienced teacher pay. “I’m not sure how that is equitable. They say it’s more expensive to live in Bellevue, but Bellevue just gave their teachers a 19.6 percent increase. We’re not able to even get close to that, how is that equitable?”

Other funding

In addition to missing out on a lot of the enhancement funding, Kittitas County schools do not receive nearly the amount of funding for other programs, like Learning Assistance Programs, bilingual funding, migrant funding or school food services. Other remote rural districts have worked out a way to use that funding toward teacher salaries, leaving them in a good position post-McClearly. Othello, for instance, receives $2.7 million in funding for LAP, $2.3 million for bilingual and $2 million for school food services. Ellensburg only receives $779,737 for LAP, $333,824 for bilingual and $595,000 for school food services.

Next steps

Kittitas County districts aren’t the only ones in this situation, and Ellensburg superintendent Jinger Longo said they have to band together with districts in similar situations and bring their plight to the attention of legislators.

“We need to be working together at the state level on this,” Ellensburg School Board member Jonathan Leonard said. “We understand this is an uphill battle. We don’t have the districts on our sides. Othello making it off like bandits. We need to do this together, to make this work at the state level together.”

Aiken said the Ellensburg School District is fiscally healthy at the moment, which gives them time to build a team approach and get the message out there. Ellensburg superintendent Jinger Haberer said getting on the same page with similar districts is critical. The district is currently working on setting up meetings with legislators.

“We want to work collaboratively and be solution focused,” she said.

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