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Here's How We Know Washington Schools Still Have A Funding Problem

Kyle Stokes
FILE - Protesters holding signs gather for a protest in Westlake Park in downtown Seattle during a teacher walkout that shut down the city's schools in May 2015.

Tacoma Public Schools' Rosalind Medina doesn't want to leave the impression she's ungrateful for the multi-million dollar windfall her school district will see from the new state budget, chock full of $1.3 billion in new K-12 funding.

But if news of the budget arrived in Tacoma like a check in the mail, it also arrived with a bill.

In addition to the $1.3 billion intended to pay for school supplies, full-day kindergarten classes and smaller class sizes, the new state budget calls for a teacher salary increase.

It's a raise Medina said teachers deserve and sorely need. But the state is only paying for part of it — in Tacoma, the state pays around 70 percent of teacher salaries.

The upshot: even a funding increase could still cause Medina, Tacoma Public Schools' chief financial officer, to look for modest cutbacks within her district. It's not a bank-breaking cost for the district, but it's a partially-unfunded mandate all the same.

"It's a shell game, essentially," Medina said — testimony to why educators and even many lawmakers argue that, despite multi-million-dollar investments intended to satisfy the state Supreme Court, the legislature could still have more work to do to bring closure to the long-running McCleary school funding case.

By "shell game," here's what she means:

Tacoma is getting more state funding — a raw total of $19 million.

The state budget also includes a 4.8 percent cost-of-living raise for teachers — a raise teachers haven't seen in six years. However, some Tacoma teachers' paychecks aren't even state-funded at all; they're funded by local property tax dollars or other sources.

Tacoma can't give them a smaller raise; their salaries are based on the same locally-bargained union contracts as the state-funded teachers. So Medina still has to find at least $1.2 million within the district's own budget to cover the cost-of-living increase.

Medina said that makes it tempting for Tacoma, and school districts statewide, to raid that new pot of state cash intended for materials and supplies to cover the teacher salary increase. It's either that, or cut from budget lines like the district's preschool programs, which aren't part of the state's definition of basic education.

"It comes back to hurting the kids to accomplish additional salary increases," Medina said. "Not to say that [increases] are not warranted — we're not keeping pace with inflation, so it's really important that we can offer those."

Medina's case in Tacoma is exactly what Washington Supreme Court justices write about in McCleary — that state lawmakers' "reliance on local dollars to support the basic education program fails to provide the 'ample' funding" the state constitution requires.

Similarly, Seattle Public Schools will have to come up with $4.2 million locally to cover the cost of the salary increase this year. It will be a similar story in districts across Washington, said state schools superintendent Randy Dorn.

"Talk to any of the districts, they'll say this [budget] is going to make us more reliant on our local levies," said Dorn. "It makes it worse."

Lawmakers argue the $1.3 billion spending increase fully-funds improvements first spelled out six years ago in House Bill 2261 that the McCleary decision compelled them to fund.

But that's only one piece of the McCleary challenge. The other is tackling the mind-numbingly complex and politically-toxic challenge of finding a way to pay teachers competitive salaries without relying too heavily on money from local property tax levies.

According to a bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers who looked into the issue during the past special session, that's a problem with few easy answers and a huge price tag — more than $3.5 billion. (More on their proposed solution in a future story.)

From her perspective, Medina said it's clear lawmakers must do more work to address the problem.

"It's definitely not fixed," she said. "and to give the legislators their due credit, I don't think for a minute they feel like it's fixed, and that they fully recognize the problem."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.