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News / Northwest

Washington Senate takes a detour on school funding plan

Published: February 10, 2016, 3:23pm

SEATTLE — The Washington Senate has taken a detour on the road toward meeting the Supreme Court’s demand to fix the way the state pays for public schools.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday evening passed a new approach to dealing with local levy dollars that lawmakers said either makes more progress or wrecks the Legislature’s chances of reaching a bipartisan deal this session.

The bill still requires a vote on the Senate floor before lawmakers can compare it with a completely different approach approved by the House last month.

A bipartisan group from both chambers met over the summer and fall to work out a compromise on this issue. The bill passed by the House is similar to the language the task force agreed to before the session began. The Senate bill takes a different approach.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said the new bill won’t help lawmakers move forward on the levy issue because it doesn’t take an approach that members of both parties and both chambers can agree on.

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, disagreed, saying it is an improvement over the so-called compromise proposal because it addresses criticism that the previous plan did not go far enough toward solving the levy problem.

The levy issue is the last hurdle to bringing lawmakers into compliance with the Washington high court’s so-called McCleary decision. It’s also what lawmakers call the most challenging part of the work.

The Legislature has addressed other issues cited by the court, including putting more than $2 billion into student transportation, all-day kindergarten, smaller classes and classroom supplies.

The Supreme Court has been holding the state in contempt because the Legislature has not made a plan for finishing the McCleary work, which must be done by 2018. The court has been sanctioning lawmakers $100,000 a day since August, with the money to go into a special account for education.

The Senate bill approved in Ways and Means on Tuesday would ask the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to work with the state auditor to look at school district budgets and give schools a new accounting system to keep state, federal and local dollars separate.

Before classes begin in fall 2017, districts would be required to start paying teachers and other instructional staff separately for anything that doesn’t qualify as basic education, such as arts education or after school programs. Although teacher pay would not be cut, everything above what is paid for by state dollars would need to fit in certain categories.

Dammeier said lawmakers have known for years that the state should have been auditing school districts to find out if they were using local levy dollars to pay basic education costs.

“It is illegal to use local levy money for basic education,” he said.

Dammeier says these audits will help lawmakers figure out how much money they actually need to find to finish fixing the school finance system.

The Senate bill also gives lawmakers more time to figure out how to replace local levy dollars with a statewide funding source. The deadline in the Senate proposal is Dec. 31, 2017. The House requires the Legislature to finish this work by the end of the 2017 Legislature.