NASELLE — Through conservative spending Naselle-Grays River Valley School District (NGRVSD) has managed to maintain a positive general fund balance.
In recent years, that approach has allowed the district to build its fund balance and avoid taxing voters additionally for maintenance items or capital projects. As an example, that balance is currently funding a much-needed roof replacement on the middle and high school wings. As more knowledge is gained regarding the impact of last year’s action by the state legislature, projections indicate if changes are not made at the legislative level, the district’s general fund could be running in the red by the 2021 school year.
With the passage of state education-funding legislation, there are winners and there are losers among the state’s 295 school districts. With some exceptions, winners appear to be more prevalent among urban districts while losers are more likely to be smaller, rural districts.
There is a myriad of reasons why some districts are on the losing end of the spectrum. For NGRVSD several reasons stand out.
The Legislature based its budgeting decisions on what is called a “prototypical school” that was developed by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). This prototype projects staffing numbers based upon a 400-student population and NGRVSD is closer to 300. Often, those projections are for less than full-time positions. For example, for a school of NGRVSD’s size, the prototypical model generates 1.6 school secretaries, 1.4 custodial staff and 0.6 technology staff. Those projections were then used by the Legislature to develop funding levels. For school districts, and especially rural districts, it is extremely difficult to find a person willing to relocate for less than full-time employment. In reality, it doesn’t happen and the district then has the task of finding a way to fund the unfunded portion of these positions.
In the past, NGRVSD was able to cover its personnel needs that were unfunded or only partially funded by the state through the use of funds derived from local levies. In what has turned out to be a “double whammy,” that flexibility was greatly reduced by last year’s legislative action. Included in the education-funding legislation was a cap on local school district levy rates. Districts were limited to the lesser amount of either $2,500 per student or a levy rate limit of $1.50 per $1,000 assessed property valuation.
According to NGRVSD Finance Officer Kent Simpson, nearly every school district is now limited to the $1.50 levy rate. For urban school districts with high property valuations, that limit is less restrictive than for rural districts which more often have lower property valuations.
For NGRVSD, that new limit, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, will cut local levy revenues to less than half of their current level. This limit puts in jeopardy the district’s non-basic education activities such as band, sports, vocational training, and counseling to name a few. In effect, it limits the ability of district residents to decide on what they want the district to do to create the optimum mix of activities needed to provide an education package that meets the needs of all students.
For many years, the state funded certificated employees’ (teachers) salaries based on a matrix of years of teaching and level of education. In what, on its face, appears to be an effort to improve the opportunity to attract new teachers to Washington schools, the legislation established a minimum starting salary of $40,760 for new certificated employees with a required 10 percent increase after five years of employment. In a further action, it decided the average pay for all certificated employees at a school district should be based on an allocation of $65,216 per teacher. Funding was then established based on two factors: the average pay and the staff level envisioned by OSPI’s prototypical school.
For schools with a large number of newer teachers, receiving funding based on the above average wage has created an opportunity for substantial salary increases. An example is the Ocean Beach School District, which recently agreed to a 21 percent salary increase for its certificated employees. NGRVSD is on the other end of the spectrum. Many of its certificated staff are more experienced and are at the upper end of the pay scale already. As a result, funding based on the new state average salary provides less of an opportunity for salary increases. The conflict of raised expectations for salary increases and available funding is playing out in current contract negotiations between teachers’ unions and school district administrative staff across the State.
The budget projections for NGRVSD were developed using a conservative student population of 300 in the 2018-19 school year, 299 in 2019-20, 295 in 2020-21 and 295 in 2021-22. Expenditures in future years are projected to grow in each category by 1.5 to 2.5 percent per year. With the expected state, federal and local revenues, drawdown of the general fund projects starting levels for each of the next four years as: $802,000 for 2018-19; $441,161 for 2019-20; $41,672 for 2020-21; and, $-397,227 for 2021-2022.
To add to the district’s financial concerns, there is the looming potential that the District’s aged wastewater system may need some costly attention in the not-too-distant future.
According to district Superintendent Lisa Nelson, districts around the state are making their concerns known to legislators and OSPI.
“One action that would certainly help,” said Nelson, “would be to change the local levy limit from the $1.50 per $1,000 assessed property value. She elaborated further, “If the State feels it has fully-funded education, then why not give local voters a full say in what they wish their schools to be. Why have a cap at all if the State feels it has done its job? Even when a much larger levy would have been allowed in years’ past, NGRVSD did not ask for the maximum it could legally raise.”
The question of the day is whether legislators, tired from years of squabbling over funding of basic education, are willing to listen and take the action needed to correct the inequities they created.