In the wake of school mask and employee vaccine mandates, as well as state threats to withhold funding to any schools that flout mandates, lawmakers and parents called into question the power of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to make such rules.
A host of laws govern state superintendent and school board powers. OSPI pointed out that by law, the state superintendent is in charge of dispersing state and federal funds and has “supervision over all matters pertaining to the public schools of the state” per RCW 28A.300.040.
According to RCW 28A.505.120, the state superintendent can withhold state funds in the case of district noncompliance, which is “any binding restrictions issued by the superintendent of public instruction.”
“The allocation of state funds for support of the local school district may be withheld, pending an investigation of the reason for such noncompliance by the office of the superintendent of public instruction,” according to the law.
Written notice of the intent to withhold state funds and the reasons for doing so needs to be made to the district before state allocation is withheld.
At an Aug. 13 press conference, State Superintendent Chris Reykdal reiterated it is a gross misdemeanor to violate a governor’s order, such as the school mask mandate, and “I cannot look the other way for a willful violation that puts the safety of our children at risk.”
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Reykdal said OSPI “will unfortunately find ourselves having to suspend apportionment, funds for districts who willfully violate that through a board action.”
“I have nothing but respect for local school boards who are concerned about a mask order, but they are willfully violating the law if they make a choice to pass a resolution” against masking, Reykdal said.
The state superintendent also is authorized to change rules and regulations governing how school districts receive state basic education money in the case of “unforeseen conditions” that do not otherwise allow districts to meet the full school year requirement, according to RCW 28A.150.290. That includes fires, floods or epidemics that make district facilities “unsafe, unhealthy, inaccessible or inoperable.”
As far as where the power of a school board starts and ends in relation to the state, RCW 28A.320.015 gives school boards “broad discretionary power to determine and adopt written policies not in conflict with other law.”
Reykdal said local board authority is about educational decisions, such as “who you’re going to hire, how you’re going to configure your elementary, middle and high school, and what textbooks you’re going to adopt in the district.”
“School board authority does not extend to the life and death choices of a pandemic emergency,” he said. “Those are left to the governor, the state department of health, or in some cases to a local health officer.”
RCW 28A.150.230 lays out school board members’ responsibilities, which include “final responsibility for the setting of policies ensuring quality in the content and extent of its educational program,” establishing an evaluation process for staff, determining the final assignment of staff, evaluating teaching materials and setting final curriculum standards.
Reykdal said while the state was “on a trajectory of tremendous success,” the delta variant has changed the landscape.
Without mask and vaccine mandates, Reykdal said there was no question “we will have to shut down schools,” send many students into regular quarantine, and end up with highly disrupted learning.
“Delta is a very different strain. It is dramatically more transmissible than the alpha variant,” Reykdal said. “Without additional measures, keeping schools open will be a challenge. I cannot reiterate that enough.”
He asked school boards Friday to follow the recommendations and the law to keep schools open and staff and students safe.