Legislators should provide equal reductions for districts

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Mike Nerland

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Dawn Tarzian

We acknowledge that in these complicated economic times, school districts are not exempt from taking their fair share of funding cuts. We recognize that difficult decisions are being discussed surrounding the state’s constitutional obligation to fund education first. We also acknowledge that legislators are in the midst of a tough session, considering the state’s $2 billion shortfall.

In both the Camas and Washougal school districts we have already made drastic cuts – yet our dedicated staffs still do their very best to provide dynamic learning experiences, quality educational programs and safety and security for all students. But there is great variation in how districts cope with the budget reductions. Some have used a significant amount of their precious reserves and some have the ability to tap local financial resources in a bigger way.

During this legislative session, we strongly urge that any cuts to education should be thoughtfully vetted through this lens: ALL students deserve educational equity and fairness and local residents should not have to shoulder the burden to make up the difference, regardless of their zip code.

Once again, Levy Equalization can be found on the Governor’s cut list. This is the money the state provides to level the playing field for districts that don’t have large commercial and industrial businesses to add to their community’s tax base. If Levy Equalization goes away, residents who live in the “tax-poor” districts pay higher taxes for their schools.

Another example of inequity occurred last year, when legislators mandated a 1.9% cut to the state salary schedule for teachers but left it up to districts to determine how to make up for those cuts. That meant some districts absorbed the cuts, some districts had enough in their reserve fund balances to address the shortfall, and some had to open up collective bargaining talks to make changes in staff contracts. The result was an application of the mandate that impacted districts and students in an unequal way across the state.

Equity means “something that is fair and just.” Reducing Levy Equalization, and also placing legislative mandates on districts to address the cuts locally, does not meet that definition.

In fact, these actions further divide the “haves” from the “have-nots”. It penalizes students, district staff, and taxpayers. We urge legislators to honor their responsibility to provide a quality education to all students and to recognize the unfair practices.

Washington’s children should receive a equitable education regardless of where they live in the state and our legislators need to take responsibility for the reductions forced by this recession by seeing them through to the difficult step of implementation rather than shifting this responsibility to the local community.

The 30 school district superintendents in Southwest Washington came together this fall and jointly signed a letter to all legislators, urging the following legislative priorities:

• Reset the priorities of government. Fund K-12 education first, consistent with the state’s constitutional “paramount duty” and the Doran and McCleary decisions.

• Implement any necessary budget reductions at the state level rather than shifting the legislature’s responsibility to the local level

• Prevent further resource disparities among school districts by protecting Local Effort Assistance (levy equalization) and maintaining the current levy lid.

• Eliminate unfunded and underfunded mandates, and/or allow greater regulatory or statutory flexibility to help school districts preserve employee positions and maintain a high-quality education during the state budget crisis.

• Suspend all new state-level initiatives for K-12 education.

• For the long-term, establish a full-funding system for K-12 education that is sustainable, predictable and equitable.

These priorities were shared with Southwest Washington legislators during the annual Legislative Forum on Nov. 4, where we were encouraged to “come to the table with alternatives” to the proposed cuts. We stand ready to do that and are all, in good faith, looking for solutions. However, we simply can’t support inequitable proposals that come at the expense of some of our state’s students, staff and citizens.

Mike Nerland is the Camas School District superintendent and Dawn Tarzian is the Washougal School District superintendent.

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