Tri-Cities school districts face multi-million-dollar budget shortfalls

Richland administrators are still determining how much they need to cut out of next years budget after losing money because of the McCleary fix.
Richland administrators are still determining how much they need to cut out of next years budget after losing money because of the McCleary fix. Tri-City Herald

Richland is the first Tri-City school district to warn about possible budget cuts because of declining revenue.

An $8 million to $9 million decline in property tax revenue, a drop in the amount of money coming from the state to pay for teachers, and static enrollment numbers are forming an uncertain budget forecast for the nearly 14,000-student district.

“We are going to be tightening our belts,” Superintendent Rick Schulte said. “There will be some reductions. We haven’t reached the stage of exactly what those are going to be.”

He expects to have a better idea about the size of potential cuts by the end of March.

The school district’s caution comes on the heels of dire warnings from Western Washington school districts about multi-million dollar cuts tied to changes in the amount of money local districts can collect from property tax levies and how the districts use that levy money.

The funding dilemma arose after state legislators — looking to end the lengthy legal battle in the state Supreme Court’s McCleary case about education funding — raised the state’s portion of the property tax funding but cut how much local districts could raise.

Officials have said those cuts constituted a combined $1.1 billion in cuts across the state’s school districts.

Most of the decrease in funding goes into effect for the 2019-20 school year.

Seattle officials have said the decrease in local levy money is going to force them to cut up to $40 million from their budget. Tacoma expects a $23 million decline in revenue.

Richland officials did not have a specific amount that they were looking to cut from the district budget of about $180 million.

While Richland is the first locally to warn about the effects of revenue declines, the other two districts are saying they are also potentially looking at shortfalls.

Pasco could see a $3 million drop in revenue in its estimated $229 million budget.

Kennewick Superintendent Dave Bond told the Tacoma News Tribune that the district was projecting a $5 million to $6 million budget shortfall next year. Kennewick’s budget is about $252 million.

Limit impact on students

While school leaders from throughout the Tri-Cities know there will be belt-tightening, they want to try to retain the core educational tools that directly affect student education.

“We have been expecting this to be happening,” Richland’s Schulte said. “We’ll be doing it in a deliberate manner, in a way that is designed to reduce any negative impact on students. That’s our primary criterion, is that we want to protect the learning experiences for the students.”

Schulte briefed the Richland School Board about budget problems earlier this week.

Neither Kennewick nor Pasco have addressed the issue yet at their board meetings.

Teacher pay rules add to problem

The revenue decline is complicated by how the state pays districts for teachers.

The state moved away from a sliding pay scale, which factored in teachers’ education and experience, and is now providing flat funding to the districts, Schulte said. So in cases where districts have teachers with more education and experience - like Richland does - more of the pay burden falls on the local funding.

The Washington Association of School Administrators said 115 school districts across the state were negatively impacted by the changes in local levies and teacher pay, and it would cost about $123 million for those districts to break even.

Richland is also facing a third problem. It is predicting an end to the steady enrollment growth it’s seen in recent years.

“Increasing enrollment is usually good for a district because revenue grows faster than costs grow,” Schulte said. “Stable is bad, but growth is better.”

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.