MV schools use own funds
for salaries, class supplies, buses

By Marcy Stamper

The Washington Supreme Court has given legislators three more months to show how they will comply with the justices’ order that the state adequately fund basic education.

After reviewing a summary of steps taken by lawmakers in 2013, eight of the justices said that there had been insufficient progress in paying for educational materials, salaries, transportation, and school expansions to accommodate full-day kindergarten. The order was issued Jan. 9.

Two years ago, the high court ordered the Legislature to provide regular updates of how the lawmakers would meet the state’s constitutional requirement to fully fund basic education for all students by 2018 through dependable tax sources instead of local levies.

In the Methow Valley School District, basic needs — including textbooks, technology and professional development for teachers — are being paid for out of the general fund, according to Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable. “This money is desperately needed to backfill the last six years of budget cuts,” he said.

The Methow Valley district has also been paying for four days of full-day kindergarten since 2007, at a current cost of $32,000 a year, said Venable. But without the fifth day of classes, which would cost another $15,000 in salaries and benefits, Methow Valley kindergarteners are getting seven fewer weeks of school, said Venable.

Even the extra money in the state’s budget for all-day kindergarten falls very short. It will still leave more than half of the districts in the state — including Methow Valley — without funding for all-day kindergarten, said Venable. And while the Methow has adequate classroom space for kindergarten, the district is using its own funds to buy supplies.

The Methow Valley School District is also using money from its general fund to maintain, repair and buy fuel for school buses, said Venable. Even when the district does receive state money to replace an aging bus, the amount is $40,000 short of the cost of a new bus, he said.

In their review of the latest progress report, the justices said, “unlike in 2012, meaningful steps were taken in the 2013 legislative session to address the constitutional imperative of amply providing for basic education.”

Nevertheless, the justices called the 6.7-percent increase in funding inadequate, particularly since there are “not even two full budget cycles left to make up the sizable gap before the school year ending in 2018.”

The legislative task force working on the school funding issue declared that essential materials and supplies require the greatest increase in funding—an estimated $1.5 billion in each of the next two bienniums.

The one area that has received adequate increases in the state budget is full-day kindergarten, except that the funding does not allow school districts to add necessary classrooms, wrote the justices.

The justices acknowledge some improvement in salaries. The current state budget restores temporary salary reductions but, because the budget suspends cost-of-living increases, educators’ pay has not truly increased. “The Report identifies this salary cut as part of ‘savings and reductions in non-basic education,’ but nothing could be more basic than adequate pay,” wrote the justices.

The justices declined to provide specific directives to the lawmakers as to how to meet these goals, but they said that the Legislature must demonstrate, “through immediate, concrete action, that it is making real and measurable progress, not simply promises.” They have ordered the Legislature to submit, by the end of April, a complete plan for fully implementing the program of basic education for each school year between now and 2017-18.

In a dissent from the majority order, Justice James Johnson called the court’s expanding jurisdiction over the school system unconstitutional and said it violates the separation of powers.

Johnson specifically pointed to the Legislature’s responsibility for funding decisions and its ability to gather public input to inform these decisions. Because the court’s decision-making procedures are not as transparent as those of the Legislature, Johnson said he is worried about an easily accessible public record.

Johnson also dissented from the original opinion that required the state to adequately fund basic education.

The initial school-funding case was filed in 2007 by a coalition of community groups, school districts and education organizations known as the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools. The majority of school districts across the state, including the Methow Valley, have since joined the suit.