A perfect storm of school budget cut threats was building, warned State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal in February: the end of federal COVID-19 funding, continuing problems with the state funding model and declining enrollments.
That perfect storm has hit many Northwest Washington school districts. While the state is mandated to fully fund basic education, districts are on their own to make up funding gaps and plan their own budgets. [See “Bond system, wealth inequity are targets of school-funding suit,” Salish Current, March 2, 2023]
Bellingham Public Schools are proposing to cut the district’s budget by $16 million, a 7.5% reduction. Lynden is forecasting a 2023–2024 budget shortfall of approximately $4.2 million. Blaine School Board last week approved a proposal to cut the equivalent of 65.2 positions, 38.2 of which are teachers, paraeducators, educational support staff, librarians and 27 are classified staff positions. Mount Vernon Public Schools are planning for attrition; they expect 21 resignations and retirements next year.
Yet while school districts across the state are facing budget crises and teacher layoffs, it appears that the districts in San Juan County are avoiding major cuts to staffing for the next school year.
The four districts range in size from 775 students in the San Juan Island District to just nine students on Shaw Island. Orcas Island has 652 students in its district and Lopez Island 225.
Orcas superintendent Eric Webb announced April 28 in a letter to parents and the community that the school district had been planning for this challenge for several years and that there will be no reduction in staff.
“This is indeed something to celebrate!” he wrote. “The reality is that we have maneuvered around, but not eliminated, the fiscal cliff that is facing Orcas Island district and other school districts.”
The San Juan district has also avoided major cuts this year, and expects to reduce staff by just .6 full-time-equivalent positions, superintendent Fred Woods said. He said the part-time jobs being eliminated were “known one-year terms” and that all the teachers are already under three-year contracts, with another year to go.
Enrollment next year, though still below pre-COVID numbers, is predicted to be consistent with this year, the only unknown being the number of kindergartners to enter in the fall.
Woods said that San Juan Island schools may be in a better position than other districts for several reasons. “We stretched out the COVID dollars, extending their timeframe. We got some other grants, were prudent with the money we had and we have a community that supports public education,” he said.
The San Juan Island Public Schools Foundation and the San Juan Community Foundation have helped out, especially during the pandemic.
San Juan Island voters also created San Juan Island Parks and Recreation District (Island Rec), a junior taxing district, in 1984, and in 2009, voters approved Island Rec’s levy to fund school sports. So, school athletics as well as the community sports fields are funded through 2027 by the current Island Rec levy.
“Saying all this doesn’t mean we have no problems,” Woods cautioned. “We will have to reduce expenditures. It’s hard,” he said, explaining that they had to make predictions for potentially reducing revenue “by as much as a half a million dollars.”
Lopez Island superintendent Ed Murray said he could not speak to specifics of his budget until the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides details of legislative actions. “Once that is done, we will be able to generate a clearer picture of expected revenues based on our enrollment projection of 225 student for the 2023–2024 school year,” he said. This year’s budget was based on 230 students.
With funding depending on enrollment, in small school districts even just a small drop in students can have a big impact.
Shaw Island superintendent Kari McVeigh said next year they expect nine students, the same as this year, but four students will leave the following year since the school only goes through eighth grade. Currently there are two teachers, who McVeigh said are both necessary as different skills and certifications are needed to teach kindergarten than for eighth-grade algebra.
Shaw has unique problems in recruiting teachers as there is no housing available nor any commercial activity on the island. McVeigh said the school owns land and has developed plans for a house for a teacher — a long-term possibility. “The prototypical model for school funding works well for larger school districts,” McVeigh said, but there is no minimum floor, making budgeting for smaller schools difficult.
Looking to the legislature
The four island school districts banded together this year to create a multidistrict initiative to work for changes to the formulas that that are used in “regionalization” — setting ranges by region for teacher salaries — and for HB 1244, which would have lifted the levy lid. Their campaign, Support Island Schools, generated over a thousand petition signatures.
The state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision determined that the state — constitutionally required to fund basic education — was relying too much on local levies for that purpose, thereby creating inequities among districts.
The Legislature reformulated funding policies in 2018 and increased the state’s share of funding for basic education, but placed a cap on levies and limited the amount that can be collected from local districts. [See: “San Juan school districts face big budget shortfalls due to levy cap,” Salish Current, Jan. 7, 2021.]
Local maintenance and operations levies became enrichment program levies. They are not intended to fund teacher salaries, although they can be used to supplement salaries with additional duties or extracurricular programs. The arts, technology classes, athletics, school nurses, guidance counselors and other staff providing needed support directly to students can all be funded with local enrichment levies.
The current levy lid for schools in the San Juan Islands is capped at $2,741 per student. Seattle Public Schools receive $3,290 per student from their levies, as the law allows for districts with over 40,000 students (Seattle is the only one) to collect more. The Support San Juan Schools campaign asserts that “Lifting the levy lid could increase our school districts’ revenue by upwards of $436,754 per year.”
Woods noted that voters on San Juan Island have consistently approved levies over the amount now allowed, yet these funds cannot be collected.
Woods credited 40th District Rep. Alex Ramel [D-Bellingham] with making headway with HB 1244, which would have allowed higher levy amount collection. The bill, however, failed to make it out of committee this session.
Teachers’ salaries vary depending on where they live in the state. Every district has been assigned a regional rate based on housing values in their area. In 2018, legislators decided not to recognize the water between the mainland and Whidbey and the San Juan islands. This resulted in the island districts’ rates being aligned with mainland districts such as Mount Vernon, Sedro-Woolley and Burlington, where property values are lower.
San Juan, Lopez and Orcas districts get state funds for a 12% increase to a teacher’s salary over the base amount, the same as Skagit County. Seattle, Vashon Island and Mercer Island districts have higher regionalization rates, allowing for an 18% increase.
Housing prices in San Juan County are among the highest in the state, comparable to Seattle’s. The median home sale price in San Juan County was $907,000 in January 2023, compared to $521,000 in Mount Vernon, according to Redfin.com.
“Olympia does not understand it costs more for teachers to live in places like San Juan County,” the Support Island Schools campaign asserts. “The regionalization rate should be recalculated more fairly to enable our island schools to afford, retain and recruit teachers, which is more costly for our remote and rural island schools.”
Although housing costs are very high in the islands, not everyone is wealthy, and families with school-age children are more likely to be on the lower end of the income averages. The percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches ranges from 35.37% on San Juan to 67.62% on Lopez Island, according to the OSPI.
Where the money goes
Much in public education comes down to money.
The 2023 state legislature passed a biennial budget that allocated $2.9 billion for education, of which $2.6 billion is for required maintenance-level costs.
“The amount is misleading” Woods said; only $346 million is for K-12 education. “It’s good news to get anything,” he said, adding that he was “happy they also made a small adjustment in special education funding,” which will help his district.
Overall though, Woods said, the portion of the state budget directed towards K-12 education has decreased from 52% in 2019 to 44% of the total 2023–2025 operating budget.
School districts statewide are currently reviewing and interpreting the state’s final budget documents prior to Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature. The new biennial budget applies to the coming school year, so adjustments are still pending.
Some budget reductions, like those in the Bellingham schools, are major. At the Lopez school district, the budget adjustments thus far have been as small as the announcement that the elementary school principal has chosen to work half-time next year while pursuing more education.
Superintendent Webb of Orcas said the Support Island Schools effort will continue next session. “The Legislature has yet to acknowledge that the McCleary adjustment of 2018 has flaws and that K–12 public education has not received a significant funding increase since that time.”
“Significant and impactful legislative change is a long game,” he said. “Our legislators in both the Senate and House are now aware of the impact that regionalization and the levy cap have on island school districts.”
— Reported by Nancy DeVaux