Cheney Free Press -

Reporter, WNPA Olympia News Bureau 

Unexpected consequences

Teachers’ pay, expanded facilities challenges to class-size reductions part of Initiative 1351 fallout


OLYMPIA— I-1351, the voter-approved initiative last fall, requires the state to limit class sizes in grades K-12, but doesn’t provide an enabling funding source. It presumes funds would be allocated by the state so school districts could hire additional teachers to accommodate the reduction in class sizes mandated by the initiative, and to provide additional classroom space.

Even with state funding support, yet to be determined, local school districts could be responsible for nearly half the estimated cost of implementing I-1351: $2 billion.

Mary Howes, executive director of Class Size Counts, a statewide coalition of families, educators, students and community leaders, notes that all the teachers in Washington State have the same base salaries because they’re all on the state salary schedule.

However some districts give teachers additional compensation on top of what the state is allocating, and because this additional pay, called TRI (time, responsibility and incentive) is locally bargained, the amount varies from district to district, Howes said.

“The state would provide the salaries for additional teachers,” Howes said. “For locally bargained additional compensation—that doesn’t come from the state, so it wouldn’t be provided by the state.”

Melissa deVita, deputy superintendent of Financial Services and Operations for the Bellevue School District, says the district pays its teachers more than what’s allocated by the state’s salary schedule because the district has expectations of their teachers beyond what the state pays.

“The state basically funds teachers a six-hour day and we ask our teachers to work an eight-hour day, so we use local levies to pay for that additional two hours,” deVita said. “We also use those funds to pay those teachers to stay for tutorial (work) after the school day is finished so they can work one-on-one with those students.”

In order for schools to maintain these current expectations of their teachers and programs, funds will have to be raised by local levy dollars because the amount is more than what I-1351 would fund, says deVita.

“Even if they fund I-1351, they will not fund it from a local district perspective,” deVita said. “If they do fund it and it moves forward, then we’ll have to look at realigning the use of our local levy dollars.”

DeVita said that state funding accounts for 56 percent of the general-fund revenue of the Bellevue School District, which in the 2013-2014 school year is roughly $117.1 million out of the district’s $209 million total budget.

The Bellevue School District ran a levies election last February, raising an operation and maintenance levy for ongoing school needs, a capital levy for technology and a bond election to continue the third phase of rebuilding a school.

DeVita also expressed concern with the availability of teachers in the marketplace.

“It’s important that we have quality teachers in our classroom to support I-1351,” deVita said. “It’s important that we have the classroom and the space, and we don’t all have that space right now.”

Ben Rarick, executive director at Washington’s Board of Education, says the initiative would impact all 295 school districts differently depending on their use of local levy dollars.

With the funding school districts could receive for I-1351, some districts might have an easier time meeting the required class sizes because other districts have already invested local levy money in hiring more teachers. On the other hand, districts with limited levy capacities may struggle to hire more teachers or find adequate classrooms for them, Rarick said.

“It creates a teacher supply-and-demand situation in our state and it’s not quite clear how it will shake out for each individual factor,” Rarick said.

In regards to levy swaps, Rarick says the board supports that maneuver as long as the levy swap adds new money to the system.

“Our goal is to fundamentally strengthen and expand programs and services for kids,” he said. “We don’t want to play a game of musical chairs.”

Rarick says the state salary-allocation model, which sets the amount a teacher earns and pay raises, has become more irrelevant as local pay has become a larger percentage of a teacher’s salary.

“I think it’s necessary to place some new limits on how local levy money can be spent,” Rarick said. “It’s not clear whether or not we will be able to devise a cookie-cutter approach that applies to all 295 districts, but I am convinced, one way or another, that we are going to have to talk about local levy reform.”

Alan Burke, executive director of Washington State School Directors Association, also expressed concern with the funding and facilities portion of I-1351 because many school districts do not have the capability to add additional classrooms.

Lisa Nelson, superintendent of the Naselle-Grays River Valley School District, says her district has an upcoming special levy election for regular maintenance and operation.

In the 2013-2014 school year, the district’s levy brought in $695,000. This year, the district is hoping the same levy rate will bring in $750,000, a slight increase due to inflation and cost of living adjustments.

“We have small class sizes in most of our grades,” Nelson said. “In our lower grades we have a Mandarin immersion program so we already split up our kids half a day anyway when they go to their Mandarin group.”

Nelson says the district supports smaller class sizes, but if doing so cuts state support for every social service then they would definitely need to think twice.

“If you cut programs that feed, nourish and provide mental health services, then kids supported by those programs aren’t ready to learn when they walk in to the door. I don’t know that you’ve necessarily helped anything” in that scenario, Nelson said. “There are other funding mechanisms and ways for districts to achieve smaller class sizes, and I like the idea of local control.”

Nelson says her district would prefer more local control and authority over their levy tax dollars. She said a levy swap might affect the district’s ability to work with local constituents and make it more challenging to have school programs that taxpayers want.

“What the citizens of my district want and are willing to fund may not match what communities statewide are willing to do,” Nelson said. “It creates a disconnect between what the school thinks its mission is and what the taxpayers and communities would like to see in the school.”

Still missing is the Legislature’s commitment to consider I-1351 requirements beyond what it must deal with in achieving the Supreme Court’s requirement to fund basic education to meet its McCleary decision mandate.

Alice Day is a student reporter for the Washington Newspaper Publisher’s Association’s Olympia News Bureau. She is senior at the University of Washington pursing degrees in journalism and political science.

The WNPA staffs its Olympia bureau with two UW journalism majors during each legislative session.


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