Schools in budget limbo

Districts waiting on state Legislature

— Public school officials are holding their collective breath, waiting for the Legislature to tell them how much money they’ll have next school year.

While the school budgeting deadline isn’t until the end of July, districts have a state-required May 15 deadline to let teachers know if their contracts won’t be renewed.

That deadline – today – has school administrators in limbo. Federal sequestration already is impacting their budgets, the Legislature hasn’t adopted a state budget and the McCleary court decision, which said the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to fund public schools, also must be addressed by lawmakers.

“This situation is very frustrating, especially at this time of year,” Grand Coulee Superintendent Dennis Carlson said.

“Whenever the state Legislature fails to complete the work it is required to do within the time limits its own body has established, then additional problems and unnecessary stress immediately follow,” Okanogan Superintendent Richard Johnson said.

“The one item in the three proposed state budgets that would really make a difference for our district would be full funding for all-day kindergarten, as we are currently providing full-day kindergarten using local levy funds,” Carlson said.

He said implementation of the McCleary decision holds potential for increased funds, “but – in my years in the business – (we) have rarely seen more money without more strings attached. While those strings may not be included in the budget language, there will be new laws that require more unfunded services or reporting requirements.”

Brewster Superintendent Eric Driessen said his district’s budget “is very tight and specific. Our school employees in general go above and beyond what they are paid to do on a daily basis. We have parents and communities that are very supportive at all times.”

The district will to reduce some staffing numbers through attrition.

“It is our hope that the funding the state provides does not come with any additional strings or requirements, unfunded mandates cause district additional financial stress,” he said.

The district also has “facility challenges that go along with aging buildings that must be addressed,” Driessen said. “We have been fortunate to receive just over $1 million in grants to help with this process, but the bulk of the costs will be up to the community to support.”

“It is frustrating not knowing for sure before notification” of teacher contracts, Inchelium Superintendent Ron Washington said.

He’s taking an optimistic attitude about budgeting.

“The good news is that we are worrying about how much of an increase we are going to get and not how much will we be cut,” he said.

“The other major frustration is not being able to know in which areas dollars will increase. We know we will see an increase, we just don’t know where.”

In the Methow Valley, “we’re hearing from insiders that the Legislature may go until the end of June or even later. As you can imagine, this negatively impacts our ability to budget,” Superintendent Mark Wenzel said.

The district doesn’t plan layoffs, “but we do have educational programs that are budget-dependent, so we are holding off on making decisions,” he said.

Early on, it appeared the Legislature was going to make “a significant down payment” of $1 billion toward the $3 billion to $4 billion the McCleary decision requires over the next four to five years, he said.

“Now we’re hearing that it may be less than half of that.”

Wenzel said the lack of full funding “means that we don’t provide K-12 counseling services for students with social/emotional needs, we have limited nursing hours, and the district must pay for half of the education that kindergarteners receive.This was not the intent of the writers of our state Constitution. We need the Legislature to step up and get it done.”

Johnson said the Legislature should take the Supreme Court’s decision seriously and provide the needed additional funding under McCleary.

He said he’s concerned about the lack of money being proposed to implement public education funding, the lack of flexibility needed for each district to spend the money in a way that will benefit its own students and the lack of leadership in delivering on the “paramount duty” under the state Constitution to provide ample funding.

Despite all the unknowns, Johnson said his district doesn’t expect any layoffs.

In Oroville, officials are waiting a bit longer than normal on teacher contracts because of state budget uncertainty.

“We normally approve teacher contracts at our April meeting, but tabled that item at our last meeting because the state did not pass the budget in time,” Superintendent Steve Quick said.

“Without the state budget in place, it makes it extremely difficult to budget for all of our programs.

“We are hoping not to have to lay any teachers off and are hopeful that we will be able to extend contracts to our teachers at our May board meeting.”

“In our small districts, the budgets are very tight and specific,” Pateros Superintendent Lois Davies said. “Our schools have many unfunded mandates; public school employees in general go above and beyond what they are paid to do on a daily basis.”

Parents and the community support the schools, even in lean times, she said.

“To have the Washington state legislative session not close in a timely fashion leaves districts having to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Davies said.

She said the district hopes the Legislature will honor the McCleary decision and that additional strings won’t be attached to the funding.

The lack of a state spending plan “does bring up a great question in regards to planning” for next school year, Republic Superintendent Kyle Rydell said.

“Based on the three budgets that are out, most districts can get a grasp of baseline areas of revenue and make some best guesses and decisions based on worst case scenario,” he said.

Tonasket Superintendent Paul Turner said the delay in the Legislature getting its work done “will cause undue stress on school districts.

“For Tonasket, we may need to shift staff to fill a retirement. I may need to make an undue transfer during the intermediate time until the Legislature establishes a budget. Very frustrating,” he said.

“A major worry is that they will pass some law, at least at the last minute, just so they can go home and we get left holding the bag,” Turner said.

Mansfield Superintendent Cora Nordby is taking a more optimistic approach: “We are hopeful the state will fill the promise of the McCleary case and we will begin to put our dollars where they belong, building our future citizens.”

(The Chronicle sought comment from all 15 districts in its coverage area. Some superintendents did not reply.)

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