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May 16, 2021

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School districts craft budgets with uncertainty

Legislature’s special session could pose funding changes

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published:

With uncertainty looming over how the state and federal budgets will affect local schools, school district officials said developing their own budgets will likely come down to the last minute.

It’s not a new story for local school districts, which have had to compile and approve their budgets in the weeks following special overtime sessions in Olympia before. Districts are supposed to put out their budgets for public comment by July 10, with adoption in August. The 2015 legislative session broke a record for the longest in a year with three special sessions dragging work into July, and the session adjourned at the end of June in 2013. Both occasions left few days and limited staff working at district offices to complete school budgets.

“There is a statutory need for the budget to be available by July 10, but they’ve kicked that down the road,” said Brett Blechschmidt, chief financial officer for Vancouver Public Schools. That district’s general fund budget was about $285 million this year.

But there’s extra uncertainty this year as the state grapples with how to fully fund K-12 education under the 2012 McCleary decision, and administration changes at the federal level with the appointment of school choice advocate Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education.

“It’s a very crazy time,” said Mike Merlino, chief operating officer for Evergreen Public Schools. Evergreen has a $329 million budget this year.

If the state’s budget makes significant changes to the way schools are funded, that could pose fundamental changes to the way the district compiles its own budget, Merlino said. What if, for example, the Legislature opts to have districts develop their own salary schedules for teachers rather than a standardized state schedule? What if changes are made to the ways districts provide Time, Responsibility and Incentive Pay, time paid for teachers to work outside the classroom? And what if the state shrinks class sizes, forcing the district to hire with weeks before school starts?

“In my mind, there’s a lot more uncertainty that has to get unwound and understood,” Merlino said.

Extra stress

As Congress tackles the federal budget this week — after the Senate approved a stopgap spending bill delaying a shutdown last week — questions remain on how policy changes at the federal level could play out locally.

“You’re going to have different priorities from the president if you have a new one,” Merlino said. “We have a different situation than what we’ve had in the past.”

President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget called for a $9 billion or 13 percent reduction in the Department of Education budget. The proposal includes $250 million for a private school choice system and the elimination of a $2.4 billion Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program for training teachers under Title II. The budget, if approved, would also add $1 billion toward Title 1 programs for disadvantaged students. That money would be allocated toward allowing funding to follow students to the public schools of their choice.

“We have a certain amount of volatility in the state of Washington, and a certain amount of volatility in the other Washington,” said Blechschimdt with Vancouver Public Schools.

Though federal dollars make up a relatively small portion of the district’s budget — about 16 percent, Blechschmidt called these “important, impactful dollars.”

There’s some silver lining for both districts, however — even under worst-case scenarios, neither budget officer anticipates the district will issue layoff notices to staff.

“We believe the worst case scenario that we would be presented with could be accommodated by the normal attrition that we have,” Blechschmidt said.

Merlino said Evergreen is also unlikely to issue broad layoff notices, saying the delay of the so-called “levy cliff” allowing districts to continue to raise up to 28 percent of their levy base through local property-tax money prevented potential teacher layoffs.

“We probably would have had a different situation, but that didn’t happen,” he said. “We shouldn’t have any issues with that.”

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