In talking with colleagues and school board members across the state, I hear growing concern about the need for a strong commitment from elected officials to enact McCleary fixes that provide predictable and sustainable funding for our schools in Washington state. As you continue to address school funding challenges, I respectfully ask for your consideration of six reasonable policy solutions, which I will summarize in this letter.
As you know, prior to the McCleary court decision, the legislature repeatedly suspended Initiative 732 cost-of-living adjustments to help balance the state’s budget. Consequently, the state fell behind in ensuring that school district employee compensation kept up with inflation.
Vancouver Public Schools was one of six districts in Clark County that had to manage a teachers’ union strike at the beginning of this school year. In January, we also narrowly avoided a strike by the union that represents our paraeducators and secretarial-clerical staff. This spring we must bargain with the Service Employees International Union, which represents our custodial, maintenance, nutrition services and pupil transportation staff.
Professional salaries for educators and fair and competitive wages for support personnel are crucial to attracting and retaining best-of-class district employees. VPS is—and always has been—committed to those outcomes.
Unfortunately, the legislative response to the McCleary mandate has not provided salary improvements in a predictable and sustainable manner. The inadequacy of McCleary funding to pay for basic education while significantly raising teacher and staff salaries and capping local levies has led to an estimated budget shortfall of at least $12 million for VPS in 2019-20. Additionally, we have projected an enrollment decline that could increase the deficit to $14.3 million, even with the recent passage of our replacement levy.
Last year, as president of the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA), I warned elected officials that without a hard cost-of-living adjustment cap in the McCleary legislation, numerous teacher strikes would occur. Subsequently, our state experienced the most work stoppages in a single year in state history. I also predicted that many districts would face untenable financial circumstances. Since then, districts have experienced more than three-dozen strike authorization votes, a dozen strikes and the first classified employees strike in state history.
These labor conflicts are generating unnecessary public concern and controversy, not only in Vancouver but also in communities throughout the state. They are divisive, disruptive and ultimately damaging to our public education system.
Unprecedented work stoppages, record-shattering labor actions and budget shortfalls that exceed those we experienced during the Great Recession are not the result of local decisions. They are a function of flawed public policy at the state level.
Our students, teachers, families and communities urgently need you to work to improve the state’s new funding system for our public schools. Without legislative action, valued K-12 programs and staff positions will be cut, class sizes will go up, and some districts may be insolvent in the next several years.
I understand the political and fiscal realities in Olympia, but school districts are reliant on the legislature to adopt a comprehensive set of policy solutions. Please consider these steps:
- Fully fund the School Employees Benefits Board package to cover all costs, or delay its implementation until full state funding is available;
- Define in statute the professional workday responsibilities for certificated staff;
- Fully fund special education over the biennial budget or, at a minimum, the next two biennial budgets;
- Direct the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to revisit regionalization methodology to more uniformly apply funding to border districts adjacent to large metro areas in other states;
- Evaluate the possible adjustment of levy caps and levy equalization consistent with the parameters recommended by WASA given the advocacy efforts of Seattle Public Schools and other Puget Sound area districts; and,
- Modify state apportionment temporarily by enacting a hold-harmless factor to ensure that all districts have at least the same revenue as before executing the levy cap and swap.
If the legislature does not adopt a comprehensive set of policy solutions for funding K-12 education, it should direct OSPI to study and develop a long-range state receivership plan that, at a minimum, addresses school district insolvency, governance structure and consolidation. This plan should include a fiscal note that makes clear the total financial costs to the public. Additionally, the legislature should direct OSPI to conduct a long-range school district fiscal health study and report to the legislature school district insolvency risk projections over the next three biennial budgets.
Thank you for considering my input. If you would like to discuss the recommended solutions, please don’t hesitate to call my office at 360-313-1200.
Steven T. Webb, Ed.D.
Superintendent, Vancouver Public Schools
Past President, Washington Association of School Administrators