Legislature’s Values Gap Contributes to Seattle Public Schools $74 million Budget Deficit

by Melia LaCour

Superintendent Nyland’s letter warning of the potential $74 million-dollar budget deficit for the 2017/2018 school year recently sent shockwaves through the community. How could this have happened?  How will the opportunity gap, so pervasive for our students of color, have any chance of closing? The answer lies with the willingness of the state legislature to perpetuate a long-standing problem in education: the values gap or the gap that exists when espoused values for creating equitable education are not reflected by actions or decision-making.

One needs to look no further for evidence of such a gap than the language in the Washington State Constitution and the recent McCleary decision.  The Constitution declares it is the paramount duty of the state to provide ample and equitable education for every student. Seattle Public Schools’ Deputy Superintendent, Stephen Nielsen explained that of the 50 states, Washington is the ONLY state that contains language that ample and equitable funding should be provided for every student regardless of race and gender.  “Other states rejected this language because it costs too much money. We should be proud of this language. It’s a civil rights issue,” he added. “Yet the state has not kept its paramount duty.  As a result, funding to support ample and equitable education does not exist. The current problem is not a problem with redistribution of money, it’s about not having enough money.”  

The lack of money is directly related to the failure of the state legislature to fully fund basic education.  In 2012, under the McCleary vs State of Washington decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the state legislature was underfunding basic education.  Consequently, the legislature was ordered to draft a budget to address the grave funding shortfall.  However, as 2016 comes to an end, the budget is nowhere near reflecting the funds needed to fully support education. This values gap, consequently, prevents districts such as Seattle and all other districts from accessing the necessary resources to support students.

Seattle’s shortfall manifests in several ways. “The $74 million-dollar budget gap is a combination of three things,” explained Nielsen. “First, we are paying our staff fair and reasonable funds to attract and retain them but we are using local levy money to do that. Unfortunately, the legislature is cutting our local levy money by $3 million by 2018.” Secondly, the district must budget for staff salary increases amounting an additional $22 million. Lastly, there are $20 million in costs associated with district growths as it continues to provide for more and more students.

Collectively, this creates a dire situation as the School Board grapples with how to backfill this deficit. School district expenditures must obey laws and agreements for class sizes, for meeting special education students’ individual learning plans, for providing food for students, for paying salaries, for providing transportation, and it must take care of facilities, pay bills, pay employees, keep records, and many other needs necessary of any large enterprise. Once those obligations are met, little remains to truly provide expanded resources necessary to ensure our most underserved students receive the quality education they deserve.  

While local levies should be able to provide such resources, most districts are forced to use these dollars to fund their most basic needs.  “Districts, like Seattle, are forced to make up the financial difference by passing local levies and by asking our community and families to cover the cost of education services,” writes Seattle Public Schools Communications’ Luke Duecy, “The state only pays 70 cents for every dollar it costs to provide our students with the bare minimum of services. Each school year, our Seattle community provides an additional $100 million in salary compensation which should be coming from the state.”  

School districts must operate with a balanced budget. Unless the legislature offers relief in two ways: allowing school districts to fully access and use already voter approved local levy dollars and pay school staff wages that attract and retain high quality staff, devastating cuts must be made.

The impact to students, families and staff could be drastic. Cuts will start at the top and will be felt at schools and in the classrooms. District wide, jobs will be eliminated. At the school level, this could mean larger class sizes and fewer support staff.  For addressing the needs of students, current plans clearly identify setting aside some resources to address highest needs. Needs will be assessed based upon student performance and using the district’s Racial Equity Tool. However, without relief, the funds to do so will be substantially less than those available this year.

“Important to note,” says Nielsen,” the Seattle Legislative delegation has been supportive of this need. We need a statewide majority of the legislature to value education and fund it according to our constitution and according to the needs for all students.”

This problem is real. This problem is solvable. Legislators reflect the values of their constituents. Across the state we need to call our Senators and Representatives and say we value education. We value our constitution; we value civil rights.  We want your actions to align with these values. Fund education.  We must demand the elimination of the values gap so that our students receive the high-quality education they rightfully deserve.

Melia LaCour is the Executive Director of Equity in Education at Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD). The opinions expressed reflected in this article do not reflect the opinions of the PSESD. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in this article.

Photo courtesy of Stand Up For Education



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