The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:
Modern school buildings support student achievement. But Washington’s reliance on local voter-approved funding for public school building projects has left some students relegated to buildings that are outdated, cramped and potentially unsafe.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal wants to change that. He intends to ask state lawmakers to revamp the state’s Common School Construction Account, earmarking those public-land revenues for cash-strapped rural schools.
More details are forthcoming, but on its face it’s a good idea. It could bring the state closer to resolving the systemic funding inequities between districts with different tax bases.
The funds, from timber sales and other revenues generated on Common School trust lands, are now used to augment locally funded school remodeling and construction projects. But historically, growing urban and suburban school districts have tapped a disproportionate amount of that money, even though the rural communities where the revenues are generated have a harder time raising local funds.
About 90 percent of public school construction and renovation is funded through local bonds and levies, Reykdal said. Revenues from public lands are a dwindling supplement to those local dollars. They accounted for just 1.38 percent of the total state and local funds for K-12 schools’ capital expenditures in fiscal year 2021, down from more than 3.3 percent a decade ago, according to Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction data.
Most of those revenues are generated where the timber is harvested, in rural counties such as Grant, Jefferson, Lewis, Benton, Cowlitz and Gray’s Harbor. But, in part because many small school districts have difficulty meeting the 60 percent threshold for voter-approved construction bonds, most of the money has traditionally gone to more densely populated and property-rich counties such as King, Pierce, Yakima and Spokane.
Meanwhile, those rural school districts struggle to find funding for safe, modern buildings. An OSPI analysis shows that only Snohomish County has a roughly even balance between income generated and grants received.
Reykdal wants lawmakers to ensure that 100 percent of the revenues from Common School trust lands stay in originating counties, with most of the revenues going to rural school districts for capital improvements, seismic retrofitting, water quality improvements and energy-efficiency projects. Funds could also be used for expensive upgrades like modern science labs, and career and technical education equipment. A portion of the revenues would be set aside for investments in forest health and sustainable use.
Keeping trust land revenues local won’t be sufficient to eliminate school construction funding inequities, but it’s a logical place to start.