By JOHN McCALLUM
Managing Editor 

Cheney School District looking at funding deficits

 

Last updated 3/12/2020 at 12:02pm



CHENEY – School district officials are watching events in Olympia with an eye to how legislators make fixes to education funding as the state Legislature prepares to wrap up its 60-day short session — funding that currently has the district running a deficit with some of its programs.

Of particular interest are hoped-for fixes to the School Employees Benefit Board (SEBB) program and the state funding for special education, both of which are using numbers lower than actual counts in the district. With regards to special education, the maximum amount the state agreed to fund under changes to K-12 funding in 2019 is up to 13.5 percent of the student population.

According to information from the school district, that figure provides funding for 664.10 full-time equivalent (FTE) special education students out of the 806.50 enrolled in the district. With a total student enrollment of 4,909.28 FTEs, Cheney’s special education student counts sit at 16.39 percent of the total.


The district spends just over $11.938 million on special education, but through the 13.5 maximum provision receives just short of $8.307 million in funding from the state, leaving a shortfall of not quite $3.632 million. District officials have been speaking with legislators in hopes of getting the formula changed by looking at the multiplier used and the maximum number of students funded.

When it comes to employee benefits, the district is looking at a current annual shortfall of $3.526 million due to changes in how those benefits have been paid. For over 20 years, the state paid a flat rate to each of its 295 school districts to cover employee benefits, including health care. Districts also were allowed to purchase individually separate health benefits and bargain benefits packages with local unions.

With the passage in the last session of EHB2242, that changed, with the state taking over managing those plans. Ostensibly the move was designed to save the state money when it comes to public school employee benefits packages.

In an email, school district Finance Director Jamie Weingart said the problem with SEBB is that all employees who work at least 630 hours a year are now eligible for full benefit allocation. Under the old system, the benefits were based on FTE, giving part-time employees a partial allocation.

The district has 685 employees enrolled under SEBB, but only receives funding for 389.85.

“So this on top of the rising cost of health care, and the fact we only get funding for the FTE based upon the prototypical school model have all contributed to the increase cost under SEBB,” Weingart wrote.

And it’s that “prototypical school model” — a formula for staffing schools developed in the 1970s – that’s part of the district’s potential shortfall for overall funding from the state. Under this model, Cheney should be operating with a total FTE employee number of 389.35 when in actuality the district employs 569.282 FTE staff members.


The biggest gap comes under the classified staff section where the prototypical model allows for 80.455 eligible staff members when the district actually has 176.574. Most of this stems from school-generated staffing, such as paraeducators, where the formula pays for 54.415 members while the district employs 147.671 staff.

Under the formula, the state pays for 289.947 certificated staff — teachers, counselors, psychologists, nurses and librarians to name a few — while the district has 368.708. The state also pays for 18.948 administrators, with the district actually employing 24.

Weingart said the district receives a set amount per certificated, classified and administrative FTE based upon the prototypical model. The problem is the makeup of the staff changes from year to year, so placement on the district’s salary schedule determines the amount it is underfunded for salaries.

“The more experienced our staff, the more underfunded we are,” Weingart said. “In addition, we currently do not identify who is paid from the prototypical school model funding and who is paid via other sources, so the difference is not a simple answer.”


Several funding proposals to fix these issues are circulating in Olympia, including providing a $257.4 million, four-year fix to SEBB (in the House budget) to updating the SEBB rate (in the Senate budget). Other fixes include additional one-time local effort assistance funding to districts, $48 million in the House and $45.7 million in the Senate, to increasing the number of counselors allowed in the funding formula, $50.9 million in the House but not included in the Senate budget.

“The Legislature gets it,” Cheney Superintendent Rob Roettger told the board. “The problem is finding the funding.”

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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