Basic education in Washington is “woefully underfunded” by the State, with strapped school districts struggling to pay competitive salaries and to keep curriculum updated, a top State education official said Monday. More than $1 billion in additional State support would be needed to fund basic education as defined by the State, said Jennifer Priddy, assistant superintendent for financial resources for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. And that’s a “most conservative estimate,” added Priddy, the lone witness on Day 20 of the trial over education funding, now in its seventh week.

When Priddy began her testimony on September 10, she characterized Washington’s funding problems as historic and systemic. She said teacher and administrative salaries were based on outdated data and described pay inequities between districts. Upon her return to court on Monday, much of her testimony continued in that same vein.

“Do you have an opinion as to whether the State is underfunding basic education?” Judge John Erlick asked Priddy toward the end of her testimony. She replied: “I feel strongly that the State isn’t funding basic education. The State has identified itself that it’s not fully funding (bus) transportation. The State has to take steps with salary allocations to equalize certificated, classified and administrative salaries…It’s hard to claim (basic education) is not woefully underfunded.” She said the basic education amount allocated for non-employee related costs does not come close to covering school district costs in this category. After paying for utilities and other non-classroom costs, “many districts have no money left. Nothing for curriculum, nothing for legal fees.”

Asked by Judge Erlick if it was possible to calculate “how much the State should be paying for basic education,” Priddy replied that “you get to a billion dollars pretty easily.” She arrived at that figure by determining how much more the State should be paying in four areas: $150 million for pupil transportation; $167 million to bring all teacher salaries to the level of those in Everett, where educators receive the highest salaries; $226 million to raise all classified and administrative salaries to those of the highest paying district; and $520 million for non-employee related costs, known as NERCs, which include curriculum, textbooks, insurance, legal fees, etc. The salary increases would “still not be market (rates)” and would not take into account increases in costs of living, Priddy said. She called her $1.1 billion estimate conservative because it did not include additional money for two programs – English Language Learners and Learning Assistance Program – aimed at helping students who have particular difficulties in meeting State standards.

Unable to meet their costs with State support alone, many districts rely on local levy funds, which “increase at the rate of about 5 percent per year,” Priddy said, but the districts’ “other costs increase much faster.” Under cross examination from Senior Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark, she said that salary raises obtained through local collective bargaining have increased the need for local funds.

Under the State’s funding formulas, classified employees are paid $30,688 per year, but the statewide average is $36,593, Priddy said, explaining that the higher compensation results from paying “market costs (driven by) bargaining.” The State pays administrators $57,000 per year, but the average is $96,450. “It means districts subsidize the salary of administrators,” Priddy said. Paying salaries beyond the State’s allocation proves costly to districts if and when the State provides a cost-of-living increase. The State pays the COLA only on the portion of salary that it funds, she said, with the district picking up the rest of the tab.

Priddy testified about former State Superintendent Terry Bergeson’s recommendation to the Basic Education Finance Task Force, which was charged by the 2007 Legislature with reviewing the definition of basic education and school funding formulas, as well as with developing a new definition and new funding structure. She said Bergeson wanted funding to be driven by staffing needs and other necessities, not by current practice. “My opinion was that the Task Force would not just change the funding formula, but (also determine) an adequate amount of money… based on a new definition of what was actually necessary for kids to learn State standards,” Priddy said.

Under re-direct questioning from Tom Ahearne, lead attorney for the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, Priddy said that 10 staff development days – currently known as learning improvement days – have been recommended by various education officials, including Bergeson, and task forces for years. The State provided the equivalent of four days in the 1990s but funds only two now. Priddy also said that the State pays for less than half of a district’s non-employee related costs, that State levy equalization funds are provided only to districts that pass local levies, and that class-size reduction funding authorized by Initiative 728 has shriveled.

Ahearne asked Priddy if current State funding provided enough support for the Learning Assistance Program, which targets low-achieving, low-income students. “Not in (former) Superintendent Bergeson’s opinion,” she replied. “Not in Superintendent (Randy) Dorn’s opinion.” And, she added, “not in my opinion.”

Coming up on Tuesday: The State will call its next witness.

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