Although the Legislature’s new education funding plan gives more money to local school districts, Kelso and Longview school administrators worry that the deal has made it harder for Cowlitz County school districts to attract teachers.
Kelso School District Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich sounded off at a school board meeting on Monday night, lambasting the plan as one that “institutionalizes” inequities in the public school system.
“It’s important for us to all understand that the only good news about what we heard from the Legislature is that they made a decision,” Gelbrich said.
“I just want us to understand that we have a new challenge, and the challenge is that we’re at a strategic disadvantage in the midst of a teacher shortage when it comes to recruiting and retaining the high-quality staff we need,” Gelbrich added.
The Legislature agreed to a last-minute bipartisan budget deal in June to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling, which requires the state to fully pay basic education expenses, such as teacher salaries.
As part of the deal, lawmakers created a new statewide teacher salary schedule that gives regional pay bumps of 6 percent, 12 percent and 18 percent to teachers in districts with high costs of living.
Under the new salary structure, the minimum state contribution for a first-year teacher will increase to $40,000 beginning in 2019. Maximum teacher pay will be capped at $90,000 per year, with exceptions for specialized teachers that teach science, technology, or math; bilingual education; or special education.
No Cowlitz school districts will eligible for the pay bumps, which are based on median home price within a 15-mile radius of a district.
“The inequities were not addressed,” Gelbrich said. “They were, in fact, institutionalized and redistributed.”
Members of the eight-person bipartisan group that negotiated the McCleary fix have conceded that the group wrestled with how to account for higher costs of living in high-growth areas.
In an interview Tuesday morning, Longview Public Schools Superintendent Dan Zorn concurred with Gelbrich’s assessment.
“I share the concern that Glenn expressed,” Zorn said.
Zorn noted that teachers to the south in Vancouver, Evergreen, La Center and Washougal can expect to earn 6 percent more than teachers in Longview and Kelso. Meanwhile, teachers in Camas will see a 12 percent pay bump.
The concern is that “we’re all competing for teachers out of that same area,” he said.
Complicating matters is the cap of $1.50 per $1,0000 of assessed value the Legislature placed on local school levies as part of the budget deal’s “levy swap.”
Property-poor districts such as Kelso have traditionally relied on higher local property taxes to generate enough revenue for basic expenses.
Longview residents paid $3.31 per $1,000 of assessed value in local school levies in 2016, while Kelso residents paid $4.07 per $1,000 of assessed value, according to state budget documents.
“What we can generate in terms of revenue per student is dwarfed by even some of our closest neighbors,” Gelbrich said.
This could create problems when it comes to funding programs such as special education, which many districts have traditionally paid for with local levy dollars.
Lawmakers involved with crafting the budget deal have conceded that some adjustments may be necessary when the Legislature reconvenes in 2018.
But Geldrich is skeptical that minor adjustments will be enough.
“This is way past a tweak,” he said.
Zorn said he’s concerned about the implications of the levy cap but it’s too early to know what the effect will be.
The new plan redefines local levies as “enrichment” levies and requires districts to submit them to the Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction before they can be put to voters.
Zorn said it’s still not clear what the state considers to be basic education and what types of activities it would deem enrichment.
“Our challenge is going to be identifying what qualifies as basic education under the state’s rules,” he said.
That’s especially crucial with a must-pass local levy looming in February of next year, he said.