Teachers across Washington have voted to strike for pay raises in what educators and observers say is the “perfect storm” bred by the 2012 McCleary ruling and the Legislature’s response to it.
While the Legislature’s new school funding model increased state contributions to public education by nearly $8 billion, it left some districts at a financial disadvantage. Longview is one of them.
“Everyone is trying to do the best they can, but for some districts the math is just a lot harder than in others,” State Superintendent Chris Reykdal told The Daily News on Friday.
According to Educational Service District 112, a district might struggle financially under the new model if:
- It has high-experience, veteran teachers who make more money than the state pays for.
- It has traditionally had property tax levies exceeding $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, a cap the state will impose in 2019 under the Legislature’s “McCleary fix.”
- It does not not receive extra “regionalization” money — extra state funds to compensate teachers who live in mostly urban areas — because it is not located in a “high-cost area.”
“All these things combined are what’s producing the contentious negotiations right now,” said Nathan Olson, spokesperson for the states superintendent’s office.
Every one of these factors applies to the Longview School District, said Rick Parrish, spokesperson for the district.
To start, nearly one-third of Longview’s teachers have taught at the district for 17 years or more, Parrish said. Salaries for these teachers are more than the state’s per-teacher allocation of about $65,000. The average Longview teacher earned $65,400 before benefits last year, but that would rise to $70,000 under the district’s proposed 6.9 percent pay hike.
“The state allocates money to districts for teacher salary, but the district doesn’t have to pay that amount. They can pay more, and typically that’s what they do,” Olson said.
This means the district must make up the difference for some teachers, usually with money raised by the local levy. But the new levy cap leaves Longview without the means to fully close the gap.
Longview’s local levy is currently set at $2.98 per $1,000 of assessed market value, but the district will be forced to limit local levies $1.50 per $1,000 starting next year. This will reduce district revenues by $2 million in 2019-20.
The inability to locally raise the difference between the state allocation and the district’s actual expenses is a “tough pill to swallow,” Parrish said.
“This is why we keep talking about sustainability every day as we email back and forth with constituents, talk to the media, talk to anybody who will listen,” Parrish said. “If the school board and the superintendent capitulate to the union and agree to teacher raises, that will make our budget unsustainable, and we have no mechanism to raise more revenue.”
But representatives from the Washington Education Association teachers’ union say the levy cap won’t impact districts as negatively as districts claim.
“What people aren’t understanding is that McCleary was all about increasing school funding, and every district will have more money as a result. That message is being lost,” said Linda Mullen, WEA spokesperson.
This year’s legislation capped local levies to ensure the state will bear the brunt of basic education funding. For years, the state had allowed local levy increases because it was inadequately funding education, Olson said, and local funding was starting to surpass state contributions.
“This began over a decade ago when WEA and a bunch of organizations, including the school districts, got together and filed what became known as the McCleary lawsuit because the state was chronically under-funding state education,” Mullen said.
The cap also creates equality between “rich” and “poor” districts locally. Previously, districts with higher property values could out-raise other districts, even with lower local levy rates.
“Local levies are based on property taxes, so it was much much easier to raise $10 million in Seattle than it is to in Othello because property values are higher in Seattle,” Olson said. “Because property values are higher in Seattle, it takes less for each person to kick in to make it to $10 million than it does in Othello.”
Then, there’s the issue of regionalization.
Longview does not quality for regionalization funding because it is not considered a “high cost area.” But just miles to the south in Clark County, districts are receiving as much as 12 percent more in state funding thanks to regionalization.
“Our challenge is that we have to compete with the Vancouver market for teachers. When there are many districts in Clark County that receive an additional 6 percent, and in one instant an additional 12 percent, in funding, we are at a funding disadvantage because we do not receive that regionalization factor,” said Superintendent Dan Zorn in an interview on Aug. 14. “We are pulling some of our teachers out of the Vancouver area, so our primary challenge is remaining competitive with the Vancouver market so we are sure we are able to secure the quality of teachers we need to be able to deliver on our work we are doing for our kids.”
On top of it all, teachers argue that the 3.1 percent cap for salary increases has been lifted, thanks to ambiguous language within a new law, Olson said.
“Because there is not clarity on it, it’s up to the district and the bargaining groups to decide,” Olson said.
Some districts in Cowlitz County have settled on average pay raises as high as 14 percent. The Longview district is currently offering 6.9 percent, while teachers are demanding 11.
“Nobody expects Longview to be able to do what the (Shoreline School District) did — which I think in this moment is the highest paid in the state,” Mullen said, referring to the 24-percent average pay raise teachers in Shoreline negotiated this August. “But (Shoreline) also had the highest regionalization (funding). Each local union has to look at the money they’ve received and how that’s going to be prioritized.”
The negative effects of the new funding model have come to the attention of state legislators, and officials are considering ways to “equalize everything out,” Olson said.
“There’s a lot of those kind of problems, and I think, when I talk to my fellow senators, we are starting to realize it, and we have to do something,” Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, said in an interview Monday.
“I can’t believe we will not do something to address this. ... Now, what we do and how fair it is to all districts, I’m not even going to try speculate on this one,” Takko said.
Reykdal, the state school superintendent, said his office will urge Legislators to loosen up on levy limitations — an area in which the new model “cut too deep.”
“We will strongly suggest to them this session that they offer some flexibility back on local levies and let local voters decide,” Reykdal said.
Reykdal will also ask the state to take over responsibility of expenditures often left up to local levies, including funding for school counselors, school nurses and students with disabilities.
In the meantime, Longview is left to grapple with the challenges left behind.
The district and the teachers’ union have been in contract negotiations since Aug. 21, and the faculty strike went through its seventh day Friday. The start of school has been delayed by three days.
“The new McCleary funding model created the perfect storm for the school district," Parrish said.