In Focus: Hold school boards responsible for choices

August 9, 2013 

For many school boards across the state, it’s time once again to make fundamental decisions about services, spending and accountability.

That’s certainly true for the Kennewick and Pasco school districts, which are now entering collective bargaining negotiations. The Richland School District’s negotiations are set for 2015.

These negotiations will determine how millions in levy funds will be spent and what service levels could be adjusted.

As an education policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation, I regularly research school district policies and financial practices. When I do, I generally look at two things — the use of levy funds and the service levels families receive from the district.

Collective bargaining agreements detail the allocation of levy funds. When I look at these agreements, I check to see whether student services or adult perks are the priority for levy spending. In the case of Tri-City districts, the existing contracts in Kennewick, Pasco and Richland are not as attentive to the interests of students, families and taxpayers as they could be.

All three districts provide levy-funded employee bonuses not tied to serving students.

The state provides Washington’s teachers with an average salary of $52,260 and benefits worth $9,216, but many school boards concede to union desires to supplement this wage with levy-funded enhancements.

When school boards grant these concessions, they often create bonuses that come with minimal expectations or services to students. Since levy funds are limited, increasing these bonuses often requires that services be reduced because funds are diverted to wages. Richland offers 9.5 percent of the annual salary as a bonus for four days of district-directed employee work when students are not present. Pasco gives a 9.4 percent enhancement for four days of directed work and two days of summer workshops.

Kennewick’s levy-funded bonus is 9.2 percent and requires employees to work five days beyond the days students are present. All three districts offer additional bonuses only to their highest-paid teachers. Richland provides a $1,000 stipend to its senior staff. Kennewick gives a 5.6 percent bonus to those with more than 16 years of experience who are willing to be mentors. Pasco offers an array of bonuses to its senior staff, including a 5 percent wage enhancement, an additional personal day and $500 upon retirement. Levy funds are also used to enhance the $9,216 for health benefits for each employee in all three districts, and these range from $284 to $535 per employee.

The levy funds used for employee compensation are roughly $6 million in Pasco, $5 million in Kennewick and nearly $3 million in Richland. This summer, Kennewick and Pasco school directors are in private negotiations with the employee unions to determine the share of the levy to be allotted to employee perks.

The second area of concern when examining school districts is the service level families receive from the district. One way to measure the service level is determine whether the schedule puts employees or students first.

All three districts have 180 days of school, but all also have partial days. Richland has 45 partial school days. Kennewick’s schedule includes 14 early release days for elementary schools and 28 early release days for high school. Pasco has 50 early release days for its elementary schools.

Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and many others are concerned about the effect on students and the inefficiency of this practice.

Shortening school days ends up being another benefit to employees, who get paid the same for a more convenient schedule. Tasks and professional responsibilities formerly completed without disrupting the student schedule can now be completed during the regular day. Ultimately, elected school board members decide how levy funds are prioritized and what levels of service families will receive. They can determine how successful union negotiators will be at diverting limited levy funds from services to employee perks.

Fortunately for citizens in the Tri-Cities school districts, November’s election has a number of contested school board races that will provide an opportunity to consider the districts’ priorities, services and effectiveness.

Write to the candidates. Ask them the hard questions and make them describe the vision they have for your schools.

Jami Lund is a senior education policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank in Olympia. He can be reached at jlund@myfreedomfoundation.org

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