Opinion

School funding proposal more of the same

State funding for public schools, as proposed in the House budget for the coming biennium, contains no surprises for South Kitsap School District (SKSD) — just the expected bad news.

Spending reductions made by the legislature in the supplemental budget actions in April and December last year and February this year that applied only to the current budget would be essentially continued into the operating budget for the next two years.

Of the $4.4 billion that would be cut from the total operating budget’s projected amount needed to “maintain” state programs under current law, approximately $1.5 billion would come from K-12 public schools.

Since public school funding constitutes about 44 percent of the state’s operating budget, it is apparent that other programs were reduced from their maintenance levels more than the schools.

The state’s paramount duty under the constitution to provide funding for schools available to all children makes K-12 funding a higher priority, but the result is less of a cut compared to other programs rather than complete protection from spending reductions.

The biggest line items among the reductions from the maintenance level are achieved by continuing the suspension of voter-approved spending initiatives: $861 million for Initiative 728 “class size” funding and $269 million for the cost of living adjustment (COLA) directed by Initiative 732.

Two other items that affect compensation of instructional staff are the freeze in “step” pay increases and reductions in bonuses to teachers achieving board certification: $56 million and $61 million respectively.

The earlier cut in the additional state funding to allow smaller class sizes in grades K-4 is continued, resulting in another $171 million below the maintenance level of spending.

The absence of a COLA means SKSD can stretch its local levy funding dollars a little farther, since general pay raises for employees paid from this local funding won’t occur and reduce the number that can be employed.

But the continued absence of the K-4 “enhancement” funding and the I-728 funding mean that less money will be available in the coming two years than had been available in previous years.

Something has to give in the coming two school years, which should be no surprise to anyone.

Actual reductions in total spending from the SKSD general fund have been avoided until this year, but the need to reduce the total amount being spent can be avoided no longer.

Even if the projected increases in state revenue do occur, so that the state has more money to spend in the coming two years than it had in the last two, SKSD funding isn’t going to match what it had been.

And, the current school year’s budget for SKSD indicates that the district will not have much of an ending fund balance that can be used to make up for the absence of state funding.

For those of us who aren’t inclined to be optimistic, the revenue forecast for the state looks a little too “rosy,” which could mean that worse is yet to come.

The latest state revenue forecast projects increases of about 6.6 percent per year in the next biennium.

This forecast is done by people who have a lot more knowledge and experience than ordinary folks, but their best efforts have been wrong before.

SKSD should consider what could be done if the state’s actual revenue in the coming years doesn’t increase at such a rapid pace.

One more line item in the budget could be cut — “local effort assistance,” also known as levy equalization funding.

This funding partly equalizes the tax burden for districts like SKSD where the local voter-approved levy requires a higher than average tax rate to provide additional school revenue.

The total for levy equalization funding in the coming biennial budget is $612 million, which would be a tempting item to reduce if actual state revenue falls short of projections.

Real spending cuts, a lack of reserves, and the specter of future revenue shortfalls will require unpleasant budget decisions for the coming school year.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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