Mid-Columbia school districts in tight financial spot

Mid-Columbia school officials said their districts could survive about a month on their cash reserves if state lawmakers fail to approve a budget before the end of this week.

But some school officials already have looked into ways to keep their districts afloat longer if necessary.

There also are concerns about what would happen if the Legislature didn't replace the savings the districts used to keep the lights on.

"If we had to draw down and it wasn't replenished, we'd not be in a good place fiscally," Columbia-Burbank Superintendent Lou Gates said.

The Legislature is in the midst of its second special session as lawmakers work on a budget for the next biennium, which starts Monday.

There were positive signs Wednesday that a vote on a budget could come today or Friday.

However, the delay already has led the state to issue thousands of notices to employees in state agencies that they'll be temporarily laid off if a budget isn't reached in time.

Layoffs won't happen in school districts and higher education, however. Community colleges and four-year colleges and universities can use their tuition to pay their bills until the state's budget is finished, as Columbia Basin College's board decided this week if it's necessary.

School districts don't receive tuition money from their students but many do have cash reserves. Officials in the Richland, Kennewick and Pasco districts said they could survive for up to four weeks using that money.

Howard Roberts, Pasco's director of fiscal services, says the possibility of the state failing to approve a budget is one of the reasons his district has worked to maintain contingency funds.

It's unlikely school districts would need to go longer without state funding, but if that happens, tough decisions would lie ahead. Roberts said Pasco would possibly have to redistribute some assets to cover its bills.

Rich Puryear, Richland's finance director and interim superintendent, said it would come down to deciding what obligations would get paid first.

"As far as I'm concerned our obligation to pay our employees comes first," he said, noting bills to contractors would be paid late.

The situation could be worse for smaller districts. About a third of Washington's nearly 300 school districts don't have the cash resources to survive long without state funding, they said.

The Burbank district is one of the smallest K-12 school districts in the Mid-Columbia at about 900 students. Gates said the district is in the same position as others in the area, having built up enough cash reserves in recent years to survive about a month.

He said districts also can contact local county governments to see if they can provide financial help. He said the Walla Walla County Treasurer's Office confirmed the county could help if necessary, though it's unclear for how long.

School officials said there's also a concern about the state reimbursing what the districts spend while waiting for a final budget. Gates said he's confident the state would pay back the money but there's no guarantee.

Several school officials said they believe a budget deal will be reached but they're not happy about the uncertainty created by Legislature's inaction.

"The sad thing is they're bargaining with kids' education as a power move," said Finley Superintendent Lance Hahn.

Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver