School funding shortfalls like the one in Prescott are part of a bigger statewide issue (2024)

Across Washington, school districts are struggling to balance their budgets — and making significant cuts to staff and programs to do so.

Toppenish and Yakima school districts laid off staff. Prescott School District in Walla Walla County closed its preschool program and let go of its librarian. Mount Baker rolled back elective and graduation pathway offerings and cut back its central office, teaching, paraprofessional and custodian staff.

In Seattle, the state’s biggest district has proposed closing 20 elementary schools by the 2025-26 school year, which would be one of the largest one-time closures nationally in the last decade.

Five districts are running in the red. Another 14 districts’ budgets indicate they could face financial trouble ahead, according to a 2023 School Financial Health Indicators report by OSPI. And even more say they’re having to balance their budgets at the expense of meeting students’ needs.

“It’s across the state,” said Dan Steele, assistant executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators. Any districts that escaped cuts this year “are probably going to be in that boat next year unless something turns around.”

So what’s causing all of this?

Inflation means schools are paying significantly more to cover basic costs like materials, fuel, electricity and insurance. Enrollment nationwide is down — a combination of a hangover from pandemic withdrawals and birth rate declines. One-time federal pandemic relief funds amounting to $2.6 billion for Washington schools have come to an end. Some districts are also facing local levy failures, and others, like Moses Lake, have mismanaged funds.

The tight budgets hearken back to financial struggles anticipated five years ago — one year after the Legislature injected nearly $1 billion into K-12 funding to resolve the decades-long lawsuit calling for the full funding of basic education, known as the McCleary decision. Yet districts said significant gaps in funding remained, and a Seattle Times analysis of district’s financial projections at the time showed 191 of the state’s 295 districts were already in the red.

“There was an undercurrent of inequities, an undercurrent of underfunding,” said Steele. Then the pandemic hit later that school year. “With billions of dollars coming in from the feds, all of those problems were kind of pushed off into the future and kind of masked.”

Now, school officials say, they’re back.

Goodbye, pandemic funds

The federal pandemic relief funds were distributed to districts based on their low-income student population, and they will end this September.

Districts like Toppenish directed their funds to remote learning resources, among other things, to avoid recruiting staff it couldn’t later afford to keep. But the loss of these dollars still hurts, said interim Superintendent John Schieche, especially since they come alongside unrelated funding reductions in the district. While Toppenish’s upcoming budget will be balanced, doing so required it to cut staff.

With salaries accounting for roughly 85% of school budgets, it’s hard to avoid impacting staff.

Central Valley School District, a mid-sized district in the Spokane Valley with roughly 14,700 students, used pandemic funds to hire staff to mitigate learning loss and address social, mental and emotional needs. When the funding ended, so did the roles, even though the need persisted.

Yakima Education Association President John Cavanaugh said he wishes the Yakima School District hadn’t similarly used temporary dollars to recruit staff. This spring, the district announced a 138-person staffing cut. While many of those impacted staff have since been offered new roles, Cavanaugh said better planning and empathetic communication could have minimized the impact.

Even without federal funding changes and reduced enrollment, Cavanaugh said districts would likely be hurting now financially. He’s among a choir of voices statewide — including state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal and Washington Education Association representatives — who say the state has yet to fully fund basic education.

A funding fix?

In 2018, the state boosted K-12 funding and wiped its hands of the decades-long McCleary lawsuit.

Voters had already approved a new staffing model in 2014 that would add 25,000 employees to schools across the state, based on recommendations by the state’s Quality Education Council. Standardized funding for principals, teachers and other positions would be provided by the state based on an average school size outlined in the new law and district enrollment.

Additional funds would go to districts for special education, low-income or multi-language learner students, as well as factors like the regional cost of living. At the same time, caps were placed on how much revenue could be brought in by local taxpayer dollars. With McCleary settled, the onus for funding schools was now meant to fall on the state.

But in 2015, the Legislature put a pause on implementing the full budget needed to support voter-approved staff levels. A decade later, lawmakers have only made incremental increases toward the 2014 staffing rates, including $71.8 million this past legislative session.

The most recent increase means that the state is now funding 0.024 school psychologists for the average middle school of 432 students. That would amount to nine statewide, based on present enrollment. Districts often use local levy funds to pay for positions the state doesn’t cover.

At the same time, state law calls for every student referred for special education services to receive an evaluation by a school psychologist, and a repeat evaluation every three years. Levy funds often fill in, or the needs go unmet.

Seattle Education Association President Jennifer Matter said the state-funded staffing levels are “shocking” and leave districts relying on local funds to pay for key roles like paraeducators and nurses.

The state has poured more money into K-12 each year since the 2018 McCleary decision. But when adjusted for inflation, the state is distributing $1,000 less per student today than when the lawsuit ended, according to OSPI. That comes to about $1 billion less to K-12 per year.

Washington is no longer spending more than 50% of its budget on K-12 education as recommended by the Quality Education Council. As of last year, the number was 43% of the state’s general fund.

Nationally, Washington ranks in the bottom third of states in terms of how much funding it devotes to schools compared to its economic capacity — even while it ranks in the top five states for gross state product per capita, according to the School Finance Indicators Database.

This leaves districts balancing their budgets to reflect state funding, rather than funding education based on what would produce equitable educational outcomes, said David Knight, associate professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington College of Education.

Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island and chair of the Senate’s education committee, agreed that the state’s investment in K-12 education hasn’t kept pace with inflation — something she attributes to low inflation policies Republican lawmakers pushed for during the McCleary lawsuit. And while the state is closing in on the 2014 staffing levels, she said those likely need to be revisited in light of technological advances and mental health needs over the last decade.

Ahead of the next Legislative session, Wellman said she is arranging meetings with members of the House Appropriations Committee to agree upon funding priorities.

The funding tango

Only the federal government can run on a deficit. But in 2007, the coffers of Vader School District in southwest Washington ran dry. The district dissolved, and its students were funneled into nearby Castle Rock School District. Prior to that, it had been 25 years since the last Washington district ran out of money.

In 2012, the state created a new system to better monitor districts’ funding. Districts are required to submit proposed budgets annually. Last year, five submitted unbalanced proposals: La Conner, Marysville, Mount Baker, Prescott and Tukwila couldn’t make ends meet.

To have five districts unable to cover expenses is uncommon, and indicates that “financial strains are really coming to a head right now across the state,” said OSPI communications director Katy Payne. School closures and staff reductions elsewhere, she said, show districts are trying to avoid the same financial fate.

Those five districts have been placed on “binding conditions,” meaning OSPI is monitoring their finances and working with their local educational service district to stabilize their finances.

Those that have managed to balance their budgets, meanwhile, say it has come at a cost.

Yakima pulled from reserves in 2023-24, but was unable to avoid staff cuts this spring. Central Valley cut 35 teachers and reduced the size of its central office to make budget last year. Those cuts made it difficult to justify asking the community to approve a programs and operations levy this year — but without it, the district would have faced even more severe cuts.

Their insurance bill alone had increased some 30% compared to recent years, said Interim Superintendent John Parker, but it was being funded by “the same pool of money that the district had before.” The district was relieved when the levy passed.

Some districts weren’t as successful. A double levy failure in Yelm cost the district 13% of its annual budget, or roughly $15 million — plus state matching funds of roughly $2 million.

Lobbying Olympia

The Washington Association of School Administrators is working with Educational Service Districts to demystify school funding for parents and communities.

The association also wants to form a coalition with unions representing teachers, principals, school directors, educational services districts and others to create a unified voice in the next legislative session. WASA says the state is failing to fully fund special education; transportation; and materials, supplies and operating costs.

Others say the focus needs to be on staffing ratios. Many want the state to revamp compensation for regional variations in cost of living.

While the financial intricacies on school campuses vary, there is a consistent message.

“Our focus, our mission, is teaching and learning. And our focus is being pulled off teaching and learning just to survive, and it’s looking at budgets,” said Phil Brockman, interim Superintendent in Mount Baker, which is facing $3 million in budget cuts.

“Our Legislators must take action to support school districts next year, or you’re going to see more and more districts tipping over to binding conditions.”

School funding shortfalls like the one in Prescott are part of a bigger statewide issue (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Gov. Deandrea McKenzie

Last Updated:

Views: 6722

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (66 voted)

Reviews: 81% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Gov. Deandrea McKenzie

Birthday: 2001-01-17

Address: Suite 769 2454 Marsha Coves, Debbieton, MS 95002

Phone: +813077629322

Job: Real-Estate Executive

Hobby: Archery, Metal detecting, Kitesurfing, Genealogy, Kitesurfing, Calligraphy, Roller skating

Introduction: My name is Gov. Deandrea McKenzie, I am a spotless, clean, glamorous, sparkling, adventurous, nice, brainy person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.