Law & Courts

School Aid Skirmishes Still Flare in Washington State

Court case over, but money battles continue
By Madeline Will — September 19, 2018 3 min read
Tacoma public school teachers on strike listen to speakers at a rally at People’s Park in Tacoma, Wash. The Tacoma district reached a tentative agreement to end the strike last week.

The Washington state supreme court ended a yearslong fight for school funding earlier this summer by saying the state had finally satisfied its mandate for increased school spending—but in districts across the state, the battles have continued.

While the court ordered the state to inject billions of dollars into public education, some districts say they have not received a significant windfall of cash. And teachers in 14 districts have gone on strike this fall to fight for sizeable salary increases.

In many places, local teachers’ unions have already negotiated double-digit salary increases, a result of the additional $2 billion in state funding schools received for teacher salaries this year and last.

Lawsuit Aftershocks

The extra money is the result of the 2012 ruling in McCleary v. Washington that said the state was not amply funding schools. Prodded by the court, the state has since poured billions of dollars into education. It was required to fully fund teacher-salary increases by this school year.

Still, the influx of money has come with its own challenges as districts work to negotiate contracts with their teachers.

Jessica Vavrus, the deputy executive director of the Washington State School Directors’ Association, said figuring out the state’s new funding formula has been confusing and frustrating for districts.

To comply with the court’s ruling, legislators reduced the amount of funds school districts can collect in the form of local voter-approved levies. The idea is that districts have been over-relying on locally raised taxes, and the state will give new dollars to replace that money.

However, some administrators have said the new formula punishes their districts. For example, Tacoma’s superintendent, Carla Santorno, wrote in an open letter that local voters routinely approve school operations levies that have generated about $86 million per year. But the state’s new formula limits the amount Tacoma can collect from levies to $40 million a year, she said.

While the state has given new money to the district to the tune of $50 million, Santorno wrote that the combined total is only a few million more than the district has received with just levies in the past, and there are strings attached.

The legislature also decided to give some districts in high-cost-of-living areas additional funding—something those in rural or high-poverty areas have said is unfair.

And after decades of the state failing to fulfill its commitment to fund basic education, districts are cautious, Vavrus said.

“If [district leaders] could give their teachers the moon, they would,” she said. “But they also take their role as the shepherd of their district’s long-term financial stability ... very seriously.”

But Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, dismissed what he called “excuses” from the school districts where teachers went on strike. All districts in the state have received a net funding increase, he said.

“All these other schools have found a way to negotiate competitive pay; there’s no reason these ... school districts should be any different,” Wood said.

A ‘Difficult Position’

Last week, eight state legislators who represent parts of the Tacoma school district wrote to Santorno and the school board members, saying the 29,320-student district is “in one of the most difficult positions of any district in Washington.” They pledged to fix some of the inequities in the state funding formula in the 2019 legislative session.

But Monica Stonier, the vice chairwoman of the state House education committee, said there were always inequities in state funding. The state’s new formula “created different kinds of inequities, but it didn’t create new ones,” she said.

While she thinks the legislature will try to fix some aspects of the funding formula next year, in the meantime, districts will have to reprioritize their budgets to accommodate teacher pay increases, she said.

“This is a really bumpy, uncomfortable road to great schools in Washington state,” Stonier said.

In Tacoma, the district and teachers’ union came to a tentative agreement late last week, with teachers returning to work on Sept. 17 after being on strike for about a week.

“No teacher wants to be on strike,” said Nate Bowling, a high school teacher in the district and the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year. “But at the same time, we’re professionals and want to be compensated as such.”

Bowling said the pay raise is important to retain talented teachers in a school system that serves many low-income students. Neighboring districts have negotiated significant raises with their teachers.

“If you can make $7,000 to $10,000 more by driving five to 10 minutes in another direction, a bunch of educators are going to leave,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2018 edition of Education Week as School Aid Skirmishes Still Dog Wash. State

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