Blaine school district faces tough budget challenge

By Oliver Lazenby and Grace Swanson, WNPA Olympia News Bureau

The Blaine school district is beginning to plan its budget for the 2017-18 school year, a difficult job since the state’s budget will impact district revenue and likely won’t be passed until weeks before the next school year begins.

This legislative session, state legislators need to satisfy a mandate from the 2012 Washington State Supreme Court McCleary v. Washington decision, which declared the state wasn’t sufficiently funding basic education in accordance with its constitutional duty. The court ordered the state to put forth a plan to meet this obligation by 2018.

If the state can provide more money to schools, districts won’t need to rely on their tax bases as much. So lawmakers also plan to reduce the amount of money local districts can levy. Starting in 2018, the amount the Blaine school district can levy could drop from 32.5 percent of its total budget to 28.5 percent, a $1.26 million reduction. Although a bill introduced this week could push the so-called “levy cliff” back another year.

Governor Jay Inslee’s latest budget proposal dedicates more than half the state’s budget to education – a level that hasn’t been reached since the early 1980s – and would more than make up for revenue lost from the levy cap. But Blaine and other districts are preparing for a worst-case scenario, in which the levy is reduced but extra state funds aren’t approved.

Blaine’s levy currently funds employee salaries and a lot of enrichment and extracurricular activities for students, said district finance director Amber Porter.

“It really pays for a little bit of everything,” she said. “What I will probably do is start by planning the budget we want assuming we don’t lose any revenues, and then we would have a list of items that we would be able to cut at the last minute in case revenues don’t come through.”

The state’s timeline is a challenge for schools. The Blaine school district hopes to have a draft of next school year’s budget available for public review by July 10, hold a public hearing on the budget at its July 24 board meeting and adopt it at an August 28 meeting, just before classes start.

But the legislative session may not finish by July 10. The 2015 legislative session adjourned after three overtime sessions on July 10.

“We’ll be watching and waiting and probably waiting some more. A lot of people don’t think the state will be done doing all that they’re going to do until mid-July or August,” Porter told the school board at a January 23 meeting. “We’ll have to be patient but we’ll still have to do some planning without them.”

The district is already looking into class size projections and taking other steps to plan its next budget, Porter said.

Levy caps were introduced in the 1970s to create a more even playing field between lower and higher income districts. Rural districts have lower property values and fewer taxpayers, which puts a burden on reaching essential levy amounts.

Gradually, the legislature has been working toward finding a solution to supply the state’s share of the education funding.

In 2009, the legislature passed House Bill 2261, which defines the state’s “Program of Basic Education.” Reforms included all-day kindergarten, more instructional hours, a new funding formula for transportation, a more transparent finance structure, and enhanced high school diploma requirements.

Legislators that year also passed House Bill 2776, which set parameters to fully fund supplies, operating, and maintenance costs; full-day kindergarten; transportation, and smaller K-3 class sizes.

In August 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled the state’s progress was insufficient and imposed a daily fine of $100,000 until the state fulfilled its
duty.

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