Opinion

Public schools facing long climb back

Now that it appears state funding for schools will hit bottom during the coming biennial budget, residents of South Kitsap School District (SKSD) ought to treat the situation as a clean slate and begin writing on it.

We cannot do much about the fact that the nature of the state’s “paramount duty” to provide a uniform system of schools is really a political issue to be decided by the Legislature.

To the extent that there is a legal principle embedded in the words “paramount duty,” it isn’t something we can define.

Similarly, the question whether the state is providing a “uniform” school system accessible to all is answered by the Legislature and perhaps the courts when someone risks obtaining a legal ruling along with its unintended consequences.

Even the statute requiring that school districts accept eligible children for enrollment on a “tuition free basis” isn’t taken to mean what it says, and the Legislature has done nothing to eliminate the purported ambiguity in the law’s wording.

In our own community, we could decide whether we want public schools that are “common schools.”

The term “common schools” was coined in the 19th century to refer to schools that are accessible to all children and maintained at public expense — not by tuition fees.

It was a term used in our state’s constitution to place the obligation on the government to ensure that such public schools are available to all children.

Since they are not common schools unless they are maintained at public expense, we as a community ought to decide if we agree with the ideal of maintaining our schools without charging fees for tuition.

If we do not agree with this ideal, then we can have schools in our district which offer educational opportunities that are separate and unequal based on the payment or nonpayment of tuition fees.

Having decided at the outset whether we want common schools in our community, we then need to agree on the funding local taxpayers will provide.

To decide what local funding should be, we need a process that tells us what we are buying — or could be buying — with those funds.

It seems necessary to identify the things on which we are planning to spend more compared to actual spending in the prior years.

This process must be in addition to the usual multi-year “levy plan” written by SKSD prior to each levy election and then modified later to fit each year’s circumstances.

It has to show for each year’s draft budget what we as a community would buy.

As fond as they are of calling spending increases “cuts” when the increases aren’t as much as they hoped for, it isn’t likely that anyone at any level of government would entirely stop doing it their way.

So, perhaps we could persuade them to do it both ways — their “cuts” can be displayed in one document that we turn over and use as scratch paper while we examine the other document showing where any actual cuts or increases appear for the coming year.

On the document that we examine, anything identified as a cut will be an actual reduction in spending compared to the prior year.

This would include any cuts caused by lower enrollment, since we should be striving to provide educational opportunity rather than continued employment for those no longer needed to provide it.

If we are to have schools maintained at the public’s expense, the public has to see what is being bought when we begin climbing out of the hole we’re in.

To see what is being bought, we need to understand both where we are starting from and what is being added.

In any area that falls short of what is needed to provide the educational opportunities we want, the process has to show what would be added in later years if funds are available.

Perhaps clearly seeing what we could be buying will make it more likely that we can follow through in providing the funds — whether by pressuring the Legislature or approving even bigger local levies.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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