Island schools face unknown financial future under new state budget

The impact of the state’s new McCleary-compliant budget on Vashon’s schools is unclear, and administrators are working to determine if the coming years will bring financial shortfalls.

While analysis by the Legislature’s Office of Program Research shows Vashon schools could see a more than $2 million increase in state funding next year, Vashon Island School District (VISD) officials are looking at a very different scenario. They say the financial picture in the coming years is wholly unknown, and any projections they can make — which, to this point, have shown significant financial shortfalls — are too unreliable.

“We’re not seeing it (what the state told us we’d be getting),” VISD Superintendent Michael Soltman said. “It’s very unclear.”

The state budget, approved by the Legislature and governor in an 11th-hour deal on the brink of a government shutdown in early July, aims to level the field for school districts statewide by capping local levies — the amounts of which can vary based on home values and population size — and instituting a uniform, higher statewide property tax rate. Currently, VISD’s maintenance and operations levy collects $1.66 per $1,000 of assessed home value, which brings in $4.3 million — about 20 percent of the district’s budget — annually. This levy money provides $600,000 of the district’s nearly $2 million special education program — annually. In addition, levy funds cover TRI pay, which stands for additional time, responsibility and incentive and is meant to compensate teachers for time and work outside of the classroom. According to Soltman, TRI pay gives VISD teachers an additional 22 to 24 percent of their salaries.

Under the new state budget, local levies would be capped at $1.50 per $1,000. The idea is the difference would be made up through the state-wide property tax hike, but Soltman and Matt Sullivan, the district’s executive director of business & operations, say it won’t work that way because of new, state-imposed limitations on how levy money can be spent. It can no longer be used for special education or any other items considered “basic” education.

“Any additional dollars are wiped out by restrictions,” Sullivan said. “The worry for us as a district is restricted funds — that they’ll be restricted for certain programs, but we’ll need the the money elsewhere.”

Additionally, the TRI pay issue presents a whole other hurdle for school districts throughout the state. Each year, district’s have to renogotiate TRI pay, and Soltman said that teacher’s unions aren’t likely to give up the pay in exchange for the higher salaries funded by the state. Under the new budget, beginning teachers would make at least $40,000. The maximum salary would be $90,000, although districts could pay more to STEM teachers and those who offer bilingual or special education.

“What the state thinks they did is increase pay for teachers by a substantial amount (which) should reduce the TRI pay being paid out of our local levy,” Soltman explained. “The problem is that TRI pay has to be negotiated, and we’re talking statewide, do you think the teacher’s association’s are going to tell members to give up their TRI pay?”

He said these negotiations are the caveat of the state’s solution, and there is no telling how negotiations will go.

“Until we understand how those things settle out, it’s impossible to know how much our shortfall will be,” Soltman said. “We’re still extremely dependent on our levy, the foundation and local funding.”

And Vashon is not the only district seeing discrepancies between what the state is promising and their own internal analysis.

“Pretty consistently, other local districts and OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) are showing significant deficits,” Soltman said.

According to a June 30 Seattle Times article, the Seattle school district — Seattle Public Schools — shares VISD’s concerns about special education funding. The article states SPS spends $60 million on special education and the state is funding only $16 million in new special-education money.

“‘(It) takes away the ability to use local levy dollars to fill the remaining $44 million gap,’” the article states, quoting a statement from SPS.

In a conversation last week, Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) said that the Legislature was expecting to hear feedback from the state’s school districts.

“We’re collecting it to see what we can do in a short session,” she said.

The Legislature will convene a short session — lasting 60 days — next year and could pass a supplemental budget with adjustments to the current one passed this summer.

She said she is aware of both Vashon and Seattle school districts’ concerns with special-education funding and she is working with OSPI to “give them more flexibility” for using local dollars.

And while Seattle is contemplating the effects of the budget on special education programs, Olympia School District is preparing for a massive fiscal shortfall in the 2018-19 year due to class-size requirements included in the new budget. According to analysis documents posted on the Olympia School District’s website, “conservatively the district will experience a $6.1 million deficit in net funding.” That deficit, according to the analysis, is due to demands in the state budget that require the district to reduce class sizes, enhance services for English language learners and gifted students and increase salaries for new teachers to at least $40,000.

“No district has the flexibility to … pay beginning teachers nearly 10 percent more while holding the rest of the salary schedule static,” the analysis document indicates.

Nelson said she is also aware of this issue with the new salary model and said that because of the potential for issues, the Legislature instituted a delayed salary schedule that won’t go into effect immediately.

“That’s one reason the salary thing is phased in, is to see if there’s an issue there,” she said.

In the end, the differences in budget expectations between the state and school districts come down to what exactly the definition of “basic” education is. For Nelson and the Legislature, “basic” is anything that falls under the state’s so-called prototypical school model, which is a funding formula designed to help legislators award funding to schools based on how many students the school has, the age of the students and whether there are any special circumstances such as large populations of special needs or low-income children.

“The problem is, in many districts, including Vashon, they’ve hired above that model for the needs of the kids,” Nelson said, explaining that, for example, the model doesn’t account for a principal and vice-principal in every school, even though educational best practices cause most districts to have both administrators in every school.

The model also funds teachers by assuming class sizes between 25 students — kindergarten through third grade — and 28 students — grades seven through 12 — in general education courses.

But the mismatch between the Legislature’s model and the reality in the state schools goes beyond staff and extends to programming and curriculum. On Vashon, the Vashon School’s Foundation is working to bridge those gaps.

Each year, the school district provides the foundation with a wish list of sorts of programs that it does not have state funding for. On the list this year is racial equity programming; STEM programming; mental health/suicide prevention/anti-bullying programs; the district’s StudentLink program; updated curriculum for science, math and reading and increased support for English-learning students. The foundation is in the midst of its annual fundraising effort and has raised $135,000 of its $350,000 goal for those programs.

Maureen Burke, the foundation’s president said the new state budget has left “a question mark” about what “basic” education encompasses. Speaking specifically of mental health programming, she said she feels it should be considered “basic education,” but the state doesn’t think so.

“(The state budget) will not cover what the foundation supports,” she said. “We want beyond basic funding. We’re making sure we can provide the exceptional education the community wants.”

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