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State lawmakers consider backfilling school district budgets after enrollment declines

Democratic Rep. Laurie Dolan from Olympia has sponsored a bill to stabilize school district budgets.
screenshot courtesy of TVW
Democratic Rep. Laurie Dolan from Olympia has sponsored a bill to stabilize school district budgets.

Public school enrollment is down almost 4 percent statewide compared with last year. Many families decided not to enroll their kindergartners because of remote learning, and others have switched to private schools or home schooling.

Because state education funding is calculated based on the number of students, many districts are now facing budget deficits. State lawmakers are considering a bill to send more money to school districts that have seen a drop in enrollment during the pandemic.

Washington state is set to receive more than $800 million in federal COVID relief funds to help school districts. But that is not enough to make up for the budget declines they’re expecting. Democratic Rep. Laurie Dolan, who represents the Olympia area, is the sponsor of a bill to stabilize school district funding based on pre-pandemic enrollment.

“If school districts lose funding due to enrollment loss, they have to respond by laying off staff. If districts lay off staff, the state needs to pay for unemployment,” she said. “So House Bill 1476 will provide stabilization to both school districts and our state through the COVID crisis.”

And yet, Liv Finne with the conservative group Washington Policy Center told lawmakers the state should not make up the difference in school district budgets.

“Since last March, because remote learning has failed them, 37,000 students have withdrawn from the public schools. These students are not getting the education they were supposed to get,” she said. “Yet this bill would pay the public schools for not educating students who have withdrawn. In essence, this bill would fund empty seats in our schools.”

She argued that backfilling district budgets does nothing to address the difficulties those families have faced, including having to pay for child care during school hours.

But many school district leaders said they need the money to prevent layoffs and to pay for extra costs associated with schooling in a pandemic.

Teresa Main, assistant superintendent of the Lake Stevens School District, said her district is the largest employer in the community. She said that due to COVID-19, enrollment dropped by about 480 students this school year compared with the previous one. She said that drop equates to about a $5.2 million reduction in education funding.

“We need this bill to help address the shortfall and the significant investment required for remote learning and safely returning students to school,” she said.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.