State must fulfill ‘McCleary promise,’ fund teacher salaries

We have amazing teachers in Camas. There’s no question that our teachers were amazing, dedicated, and passionate before the McCleary legislation passed for school funding, and they will continue to be just as amazing in the aftermath of this legislation.

What has changed is the way Washington State funds schools, and this affects Camas in a unique way.

All across our state, we are caught up in a great struggle about public education. I love Camas because we have a wonderful district thanks, in large part, to our collective effort. All of us have contributed as staff, volunteers, parents, students, supporters and, of course, through our taxes. I am grateful for the opportunities our children have, and I am sorry that our community and all the other communities across our state have to go through this.

The struggle started about seven years ago with a lawsuit that worked its way to our state Supreme Court and became known as the McCleary decision. This lawsuit focused on public school funding and the inequities that existed amongst school districts. Because of our community support, Camas School District benefited in the former funding system. Through our strong tax base and consistent local support, we were able to pass levies that allowed us to develop outstanding programming and support the inadequate staffing model funded by the state. We hired and retained the best staff while other districts struggled.

The McCleary decision prompted our legislature to change the funding model for public schools with the goal of equitably funding basic education for each school district. State property taxes were raised with funds distributed out across the 294 Washington school districts using a new formula. Local levy support was reduced and capped. Some have called the new system and funding the “McCleary promise.”

Based on this new system, Camas now receives funding for staffing based on the average teacher salary for the state. This is what this shift means for our communities and Camas schools:

  • In the 2018-19 school year, the funding for each teacher in Washington state is $73,042.
  • In Camas, our teachers are highly educated and experienced, which is why 72 percent are at the top of the salary schedule.
  • In the 2017-18 school year, the average Camas teacher earned $76,253.
  • Each year, the district utilizes all of the state allocated funds on salary increases.
  • This means, without any wage increase, there is already a $3,211 deficit per full-time teacher in Camas this year. When you multiply that deficit by 400 to 450 teachers, there is an annual overall deficit of $1,284,400 to $1,444,950.
  • The Camas School District’s ability to levy has been reduced by 50 percent — from $3 for every $1,000 of assessed property value to $1.50 per $1,000.
  • We fund full-time positions across all employee groups entirely out of levy funds, and a portion of every Camas teacher’s salary is supplemented by the local levy. The levy also funds 100 percent of extra-curricular activities, and subsidizes other underfunded areas of special education, student transportation and food services.
  • As a district, we have tried to maintain a 5 percent to 10 percent “safety net” or fund balance. Using fund balance for requested wage increases is unsustainable. Fund balance is designed to cover planned and unplanned expenses. A 5-percent fund balance would not cover the day-to-day costs of running the school district for a month.
  • Without any way to raise additional funding for our schools or our teachers, budget cuts would need to be considered in order to provide the requested wage increase.

The Washington Education Association (WEA) has a long history of advocating for public education. Over the years, the students of Washington have benefited from that advocacy. I agree with the WEA that the McCleary promise has not been fulfilled, but I believe a work stoppage will do more harm than good in our community.

We are already witnessing the divisiveness. To realize the McCleary promise, more work is needed at the state level. Clear and thoughtful policy that supports sustainable funding is essential.

This is not the way to start a school year, and I appreciate your patience and support as we solve this together. Through thoughtful decisions and continued advocacy, we will come to an agreement.

Dr. Jeff Snell is the superintendent of the Camas School District.