It takes whole community to fix broken school funding


Our state’s education funding system is broken, woefully archaic, and in need of dramatic change if we want to truly provide a free public education with high standards for all our children. Our schools are currently funded with formulas designed in the 1970’s. These include a patchwork of changes including a laundry list of well-intentioned, but unfunded mandates that have been implemented over the years.

Visit our schools and you’ll see the student population has changed dramatically. We have more special-needs students along with many who entered our schools unable to read, write, or speak English. This takes a toll not only on our district’s finances, but also on our teachers, administrators and support staff, who put their passion into teaching these kids on a daily basis.

Because school districts can’t rely on the state for the promised full funding, districts use local property tax dollars to pay for basic education costs. Years ago, local property tax dollars provided funding for extra programs that our community wanted in our schools. Today, these dollars pay for teacher salaries, fuel, insurance and utilities. Year after year we are forced to make very tough decisions regarding which programs we will continue to provide and which we must eliminate in order to balance the budget.

As our costs continue to escalate faster than state and local funding, the coming years will bring even more difficult decisions regarding how we balance our programs, teacher salaries and class sizes

We recently attended the Washington State School Directors Association Legislative Assembly and discussed these very same topics with school board directors from across the state. Make no mistake about it, all districts across the state are in the same relative position. While some districts have more challenges than others due to differing demographics, we all are facing increasing pressure on our budgets. Difficult decisions lie ahead.

In an attempt to recommend a new definition of what constitutes “basic education” and to develop new funding formulas and sources for our public school system, the state has assembled a commission of legislators and educational leaders, titled the Basic Education Task Force. Our very own state Rep. Pat Sullivan of Covington is a key member.

We were briefed on the work of the task force and are optimistic that real progress has been made and that our voices are being heard. Fortunately, Kent School District has been very proactive in making tough financial decisions each year. As a result, we have minimized dramatic budget cuts in our schools. Unfortunately, as we face greater budget cuts in the current economy, any changes at the state level are likely years away.

One of the reasons we are facing budget cuts is that our expenses are increasing much faster than our revenues – similar to what is happening in our own homes. As a school district, we, too, feel the pressures of increasing gas and utility prices.

An additional factor: In order to help reduce class sizes and provide other school support, Kent School District hires approximately 300 full-time employees that are above the number allocated by the state-funded formula. These employees are funded from local property-tax dollars. This year the state approved a cost-of-living increase for staff members ranging from 4.4 percent to 5.13 percent. The cost of these increases and related benefits for the district’s above-formula staff resulted in a cost to our district of $3.8 million for this year alone.

This year’s local levy dollars only bring an increase of $2.6 million to our district. As a result, we have a $1.2 million gap that we must address this year. The bottom line is that we must live within our means and, therefore, make tough choices.

What can we do? We need to come together as educators, parents and community members to let Olympia know that it is time that they step up and fully fund education.

The Basic Education Task Force can only do so much.

Take the time to call or write to your legislators and let them know you care about our children’s education. On Dec. 3, the Kent School Board will host a legislative forum with our surrounding school districts. Please watch for details on this event and come out to show your support.

Working together we can assure that as a district we meet our mission of “Successfully Preparing All Students For Their Future.”

Chris Davies and Debbie Straus are Kent School Board members.