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Washington Legislature

In this Sept. 7, 2016 file photo, Alan Copsey, right, a deputy attorney general for the state of Washington, speaks during a hearing before the Washington State Supreme Court in Olympia, Wash., regarding a lawsuit against the state over education funding. 

With preliminary budgets due next month, local school districts are stuck in a holding pattern as state legislators struggle to hammer out a new plan to fully fund the state’s K-12 public education system.

Lawmakers in Olympia are approaching the end of a second special legislative session called by Gov. Jay Inslee after failing to reach a budget agreement that complies with the state Supreme Court’s controversial 2012 McCleary ruling.

In that decision, justices ruled that the Legislature was violating the state constitution by forcing school districts to rely on local levies for basic expenses such as buses and teachers’ salaries.

Multiple proposals have been floated, but it’s still unclear what the details of a final budget deal will look like — and that’s making life harder for people like Chris Fritsch, assistant superintendent at Longview Public Schools. According to state law, school districts are required to deliver a preliminary budget proposal to the public by July 10 and a finalized budget by Aug. 31.

“I’d rather not bank on conjecture,” Fritsch said. “Right now we’re just waiting for a final number.”

Fritsch said he’s operating under the assumption that there will be no new revenue from the state this year. A representative from Kelso School District could not be reached for comment.

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The McCleary decision has been a boon for local school districts in that the state now shoulders the full cost of transportation and supplies. But contracts for both Longview and Kelso teachers — which are still paid using a mix of state and local dollars — expire at the end of August.

And the uncertainty in Olympia has brought has produced a stalemate in contract negotiations.

“I’m at seven different negotiating tables, and nobody’s going to budge until McCleary is resolved,” said Roy Maier, the director for the Washington Education Association who represents the lower Columbia region in labor talks. “Nobody wants to talk about money until we know what the Legislature is going to do.”

Maier said he hopes to the legislature will address salary concerns in its new biennial budget.

If lawmakers can’t reach a deal by June 30, the state risks a partial government shutdown. Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court has given the state until September 2018, to comply with McCleary, but it also has mandated that the details on how to fully fund public education be in place before the Legislature adjourns for the year.

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