Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: Teacher pay raises led to school budget woes, lawmaker says

School “levy fix” passes after floor debate

Representatives Pat Sullivan (D-Covington) and Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn) debate a bill that enables public schools to raise more money from local property taxes. Districts including Tacoma and Olympia said the levy lid has deprived them of revenue.
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Representatives Pat Sullivan (D-Covington) and Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn) debate a bill that enables public schools to raise more money from local property taxes. Districts including Tacoma and Olympia said the levy lid has deprived them of revenue.

After seeing the Tri-City Herald’s editorial last weekend blaming the Legislature for funding problems facing many school districts, including those in the Tri-Cities, I think your readers deserve to consider a different viewpoint on this issue.

Since 2013, state legislators have increased K-12 education funding by $9.2 billion. Two years ago, they also agreed to policy changes aimed at making Washington’s school-funding system equitable across the state. This was a bipartisan solution, passed by Democrats and Republicans.

Thanks to the 2017 plan, which addressed issues raised in the McCleary ruling and was endorsed by the state Supreme Court, and extra funding added last year, K-12 education spending now represents more than 50 percent of our state’s current $45 billion operating budget. In fact, school districts will have 20 percent more funding per pupil for the 2019-20 school year than they did three years ago. And that doesn’t include increased funding for special education.

State and local funding combined for the Pasco School District is estimated to rise from $10,521 per student for the 2016-17 school year to $12,624 in 2019-20. For Kennewick, per-student funding for this period jumps from $10,336 to $12,459. For Richland, it increases from $10,019 to $12,002.

So what led to the latest budget problems for many districts? In 2018, our Democratic legislative colleagues caved to pressure from the local education unions by giving school districts the authority to use one-time money for large salary increases that aren’t sustainable.

Teacher unions in more than a dozen districts went on strike last August or September. Virtually all wound up receiving salary hikes of 10 percent or more, with some districts even agreeing to salary raises exceeding 15 percent. Other districts, including Seattle and Spokane, avoided strikes but still provided teacher-salary increases topping 10 percent. And when you raise salaries, it actually results in additional spending increases for districts due to payroll taxes that go up along with the salary hikes.

The outcome was predictable: Districts that gave double-digit salary increases for teachers are facing budget deficits.

This year, the Washington Education Association (the state’s largest education union) and others within the education establishment asked the Legislature for more money to stave off these sudden budget deficits facing school districts. Despite Republican objections, Democratic majorities in the House and Senate voted to lift the $1.50 local school-levy “lid” to $2.50, which could raise property taxes statewide by around $800 million.

Unfortunately, the levy-lid increase will put our state back on a path toward another school-funding lawsuit — “McCleary 2.0.” Raising the lid risks returning Washington to the same inequitable situation where high-property-value districts have an unfair advantage. Students living in lower-property-value areas deserve the same quality education and facilities as those living in wealthier areas. Increasing the lid will bring back funding inequities that the Legislature worked hard to eliminate.

I do agree with the editorial that the Legislature should help school districts that are struggling financially. Breaking the McCleary promise, as our Democrat colleagues just did, isn’t the answer. If school districts still have common funding needs that aren’t being addressed by the tens of billions of dollars now going to K-12 education, the Legislature should address them at the state level. Doing otherwise will bring us right back to the problem that the Legislature spent years trying to resolve.

Senator Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is Senate Minority Leader.

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