Editorial: School budgets are a mess and the Legislature is to blame

In the spirit of another school year coming to an end, we’re making a summer assignment.

Don’t worry, kids. It’s not for you.

It’s for our state lawmakers.

Between now and the next legislative session, legislators need to figure out how to repair the financial damage they’ve inflicted on school districts across the state.

From Vancouver to Spokane, Washington school leaders are being forced to make tough decisions on how to keep programs going with significantly less money.

Tri-City school districts, especially, have been hit hard and are expected to come up millions short for next school year.

Pasco school officials have predicted a $5 million decline in revenue with a $7.5 million rise in costs.

Kennewick is looking at a $10 million shortfall and spending some reserves in its proposed budget, and Richland is considering increasing property taxes to make ends meet.

This wretched situation is the fault of a legislative “fix” to inequitable school funding that lawmakers came up with two years ago.

Obviously, it isn’t working.

For too long the state failed its paramount duty to amply fund K-12 education. To make up for that failure, communities were allowed to use local tax money from school levies to make up the difference.

State officials allowed this system for decades, ignoring that it set up an unfair process in which students from poorer communities were denied resources and opportunities that students from affluent areas were able to receive.

The state was sued for this disparity and put under a court order to remedy it.

The plan that finally was approved capped local property tax levies in order to alleviate the inequity between rich and poor communities. It then boosted state property taxes, and the money designated to school districts.

It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time, but since then it has become apparent that instead of fixing school funding problems, the plan made things worse.

Kennewick paraeducators and supporters rallied in January 2019 near the school district office. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Leaders of school districts across the state have found themselves in major budget trouble.

Officials from wealthy school districts were especially vocal about the decline in revenue, and so, with minutes away from the midnight session deadline, the Democratic-led Legislature decided to remove local levy lids.

While this might help a select number of west-side school districts that don’t have trouble getting support for school levies, the “solution” is not going to go over well in most communities where voters thought local property taxes would be capped.

Richland school officials worded the 2018 levy request so that it could collect more tax revenue in 2020 if needed.

But Pasco and Kennewick ballot measures were specific, and school officials are rightly concerned about keeping the trust of voters who were told their local property taxes would decrease.

The Legislature has put school officials in a terrible dilemma. It also has just gone back to the system that got it sued in the first place.

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Tri-Cities school officials are rightly concerned about keeping the trust of voters who were told their local property taxes would decrease. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Republican lawmakers and education leaders we’ve talked to say they fear a “McCleary 2.0” in the near future. Those concerns are valid.

Lifting the local levy caps might help some school districts get through in the short-term, but it puts most school leaders in an awkward position with voters.

And it sets the state right back to the inequitable school funding system lawmakers tried so hard to get away from in the first place.

The Legislature must find a fair and efficient way to fund education in this state, and it will take more than a cram session to do it.

If a task force could get a head start on the problem, that would be helpful. Finding a way out of this financial mess needs to start now.