We’re all grappling with convoluted school funding issues

If the issue of school funding in Washington state makes you feel like ripping your hair out and screaming into a pillow, you’re not alone.

Those of us who try our best to report this convoluting and ever-shifting issue in a way most readers can comprehend — only to be dragged over the coals in online comments — regularly feel the pain. And we know parents, teachers and school district administrators are beyond frustrated by K-12 funding issues.

Can you blame them? Every few weeks it seems like there’s a new headline blaring the same grim message: school districts throughout the state are facing deficits unlike any they’ve seen before. What’s more, the legislators seemed to know their decision would cause statewide chaos but passed the legislation anyway.

In Washougal, the school district deficit recently grew by $1 million. In Camas, a budget committee worked diligently to cope with that district’s more than $8 million deficit and called for reductions of $4 million, leaving another roughly $4 million in operating expenses not covered by revenues.

Like dozens of other Washington school districts, Camas and Washougal both turned to reserve funds to cover operating expenses in their 2019-20 budgets.

Reserves exist for crisis situations like this, and their use will save numerous positions and programs in Camas-Washougal schools during the 2019-20 school year, but as education service districts throughout Washington have said numerous times: using reserves to cover expenses is not a sustainable option.

“Selling assets or using reserves may be considered acceptable means of balancing the budget, but is not sustainable on an ongoing basis,” the Government Finance Officers Association warns in its “best practices” guide. “The GFOA uses the term ‘structurally balanced budget’ to describe a budget where recurring revenues equal or exceed recurring expenditures.”

In Camas and Washougal school districts, expenses are outpacing revenues.

At a presentation to the Camas school board in late June, Jasen McEathron, the school district’s business services director, said the district’s revenue growth is expected to be flat, with no growth in 2019-20, while expenses are projected to grow by 4 percent.

“Zero (percent growth) is better than negative but with expense growth of 4 percent after we made cuts, it doesn’t add up,” McEathron told the school board. “The only thing we can do to change that is the levy. The deadline to cut more staff is gone. We have made and will continue to make efforts to save costs throughout the year … (and will use a) $4.1 million fund balance to cover operating expenses.”

The problem stems from a 2017 Washington state legislature decision that impacted school districts’ ability to raise funds via local levies. That decision, according to the Washington Association of School Administrators, cost Washington school districts’ $1.1 billion in lost local levy funding.

In Camas, for instance, a local school levy contributed $2.97 per $1,000 assessed property value in 2018. The new school funding formula, however, would have capped that levy rate at $1.50 per $1,000 assessed value. A recent legislative decision raised that levy limit to $2.50 per $1,000, but still leaves districts like Camas, which relied heavily on higher levies to supplement state funding, facing budget shortfalls in 2019-20.

In Washougal, lower enrollment rates also are playing into that district’s funding woes, and school district leaders are now trying to “re-attract” their own Washougal students — many of whom have left the district for private schools or home-schooling.

Superintendents in both school districts have been extremely transparent in their quest to help community members better understand the funding situation facing Camas-Washougal school districts.

On July 22, the Camas school board will discuss levy rates and the 2019-20 budget. Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell said in late June that the district is facing an “unprecedented” situation.

“Normally, our levy certification was just rolling over whatever was voted on,” he said.

Now, the district will need to examine how levy rates will play into what the community expects from Camas schools.

We will be there to cover the decisions facing both school districts as they finalize their 2019-20 budgets and will do our best to bring an extremely convoluted issue to our readers in a way the average parent or community member — who doesn’t have time to attend board meetings or pour over every budget document — can easily understand.

If you have questions you would like us to ask local school district leaders regarding the 2019-20 budgets, email them to kelly.moyer@camaspostrecord.com.