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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Keep a Lid On It

Unsustainable deals in school districts require accountability, not a bailout

The Columbian
Published: January 10, 2019, 6:03am

As Vancouver Public Schools — and other districts throughout the state — grapple with projected budget shortfalls, legislators must avoid the temptation to lift a lid on school levies.

The Vancouver school board has adopted a resolution directing Superintendent Steve Webb to consider program and stuff cuts in the wake of a projected $11.4 million deficit for the 2019-20 school year. The district projects a $13.8 million deficit for the following year and says new contracts with teachers and educational support staff are partly to blame.

Teachers in Vancouver schools and other districts in the region went on strike shortly before the current school year was scheduled to begin, seeking pay increases from funds approved by the Legislature. The district agreed to significant raises and recently reached a new contract agreement with the Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals. At the time of negotiations with teachers, district officials warned that the deals would result in budget shortfalls down the road; now they say that is coming to fruition.

The disconcerting part is that all of this has been expected. As The Columbian wrote editorially in August, when labor unrest was in the air, “As unions and school administrators throughout Clark County — and the rest of the state — negotiate teacher salaries, a word of advice is warranted for school districts: Don’t bargain away money you don’t have.” The editorial board added: “It is imperative to settle upon budgets that are sustainable and that prepare districts for the future. Anything less would be irresponsible and would poorly serve the taxpayers who foot the bill.”

Contentious labor negotiations followed a legislative change to school funding. The Legislature, in finally meeting the mandate of the 2012 McCleary v. Washington ruling from the state Supreme Court, increased state funding for K-12 public schools. The result was a sharp increase in property taxes, with the expectation that reduced reliance on local levies will provide relief for taxpayers beginning this year. Hence, the concern about the sustainability of big raises for teachers — the same amount of money will not be available in the future.

All of which leads to questions about the new resolution from Vancouver Public Schools. If the district is facing shortfalls totaling $25 million over the next two school years, should not the superintendent consider program and staffing cuts — with or without a publicity-generating resolution? And why did the district approve contracts that will lead to budget shortfalls?

Those questions likely will be repeated in Olympia when the Legislature convenes next week. As part of a compromise for the new state funding model, lawmakers agreed to place a cap on local levies that previously were used to fund basic education. With the additional state property tax for schools, Republican lawmakers saw the need to protect taxpayers and prevent school districts from treating the public as a bottomless reservoir of cash.

Now, with school districts claiming shortfalls, there undoubtedly will be efforts in this year’s session to remove the lid on local levies; legislators must reject them. An agreement was reached last year to reconfigure how the state funds public education, and it should be allowed to play out.

If school districts signed contracts that are not sustainable, the blame lies with teachers and administrators and not with taxpayers. Districts should not have bargained away money they don’t have.