Monday, August 15, 2022
Aug. 15, 2022

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Washington schools chief wants to sever connection between timber sales, K-12 construction

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State revenue from logging public land would no longer be used for building and remodeling schools in urban areas under a new set of recommendations from Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal.

Instead, the money generated by timber sales and leasing on public school trust lands would go toward school construction in rural districts and be used for sustaining healthy forests.

During a news briefing Tuesday, Reykdal outlined several proposals for the Legislature to decouple the state’s K-12 Common School Trust revenue from statewide school construction funding support and ensure dollars generated in rural areas go toward supporting schools there.

At times, Reykdal sounded more like an environmental leader than a superintendent as he talked up the need for healthy forests to capture carbon and efforts to help natural resources withstand climate change. It was unclear how his recommendations to change education-focused public trust spending could affect state timber harvests.

Currently, revenue from timber sales and leasing on roughly 1.8 million acres of public land goes toward the trust fund, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. After districts pass local bonds, the state provides them with a matching grant through the School Construction Assistance Program. That program pulls dollars from the Common School Trust, with counties contributing more than $600 million in revenue since 2012.

The amount of timber and other trust land revenue benefiting schools has declined over the past decade, making up a little more than 10% of the total state funding allocated for school construction in 2021 and just 1.35% of total school construction costs. Washington spends nearly $4 billion in local and state dollars on school construction each year.

Timber sales alone made up just .7% of total construction expenditures for schools in 2021, compared to 2% in 2012.

Reykdal said now is the time to change how trust land funding works for schools, as fewer districts have passed bonds the Legislature matches with public dollars. That’s especially true in rural areas where real estate is worth less. Rural residents pay a higher tax rate than residents of wealthy, urban districts to raise the same amount of money, so those districts struggle to pass bonds for school construction.

“We know there’s capacity to make this transition,” he said. “Let’s do it now at a time when the demand for state capital dollars is at the lowest point it’s been in the last seven or eight years.”

Reykdal is proposing school trust lands no longer fund the state’s School Construction Assistance Program and the Legislature use other state funding sources, like general obligation bonds or cash, to fill out the budget. He plans to ask for the changes as part of his budget request during the next legislative session.

Part of the issue, Reykdal said, is that dollars generated in rural communities are largely spent in more urban areas.

“When we calculate where all of it’s coming from, county by county, and where it is spent, you see enormous differences … the money from this trust is disproportionately going to urban communities even though the revenue and the timber is generated in rural communities,” he said.

According to data presented at Tuesday’s briefing, King County schools spent more than $169.7 million of Common School Construction funds since 2012, but generated a little more than $40 million of common school revenue in that time frame.

Yakima, Spokane and Pierce counties also spent more than their share of revenue. Together they generated a little more than $32.4 million for the trust while spending more than $304 million.

By using other state funding sources to pay for the School Construction Assistance Program, urban schools will essentially receive funding more in proportion to the amount of state revenue they pitch in, Reykdal said.

Another challenge the recommendations aim to address is the ability and willingness of communities to approve local bonds — for a capital funding ballot measure to succeed, it has to win approval from at least 60% of voters.

“It should not be the case that because you can pass a bond in a wealthier part of our state that you’re the one getting all those matching dollars versus a community that might be very property-poor … there’s a way to do it that’s significantly more equitable,” Reykdal said.

Rural schools would still be eligible for matching funds through the School Construction Assistance Program if they pass local bonds, Reykdal added. Instead of being used to match bonds in larger, wealthier districts, trust dollars generated largely by rural communities should go toward addressing long-standing issues and supporting critical upgrades for rural schools, he said.

Some of those needs include modernizing to reduce the risk of earthquake or tsunami damage to buildings, expediting clean water access by replacing lead pipes and fixtures and providing energy efficiency grants for rural schools — which can also reduce their carbon footprint. He also recommended the dollars be used for career and technical education equipment grants to update high-cost equipment and labs.

“In modern schools, when we build them new, these facilities are amazing, but in older schools — particularly old and rural schools — these things can lag behind so many decades that students don’t get a real-time experience for their learning,” he said.

Part of the proposal also focused on the preservation of public trust land. Reykdal suggested the legislature earmark some of the Common School Trust revenue for maintaining healthy forests through things like fire mitigation, disease prevention and tree planting. Reykdal’s proposal also called for diversifying the sources of revenue on public trust land, with recreational and commercial leasing.

The idea, Reykdal said, is to preserve the land as a resource for the state.

“If we want those forests … to withstand the complicated and inevitable pressure of climate change that is upon us today, it is worth putting some of these trust dollars back in as an investment in healthy forests,” he said.

It’s the second time in less than a year that the inequity built into Washington’s system of funding school construction and improvements has come to light. In December, the tiny Wahkiakum School District in Southwest Washington filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing Washington is violating its own constitution by failing to ensure all students learn in safe and modern school buildings. In the complaint, the district’s lawyers argued Washington’s failure to amply fund Wahkiakum’s capital needs “makes our public schools a perpetuator of class inequality.”

In 2020, Wahkiakum put forward a $28 million bond proposal to upgrade the high school. Roughly 70% of voters rejected it.

Tuesday’s briefing was the first of nine that Reykdal has planned through November, aimed at budget and policy recommendations for the Legislature’s next session. Future topics will include dual credit, meal access in schools and early learning.

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