Teachers who earn significantly less than comparable educators in neighboring school districts. Unpredictable prices for bus fuel. Rising health and liability insurance costs. An over-reliance on local levies. Less buying power. And expectations of world-class schools without the funding to get there. Many of the shortcomings in Washington’s system of school finance were evident Thursday as the trial over education funding ended its second week.

The Vader School District in Lewis County dissolved in 2007, unable to pass an operating levy and reaching a point of insolvency, said Jennifer Priddy, assistant superintendent for financial resources for the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. She portrayed Vader as the tip of an iceberg, with Washington’s school finance system reaching a “crisis point” and needing “drastic changes” to stay afloat.

Priddy, the lone witness on Day 7 of the trial, has served three State Superintendents and provided information and recommendations to various State task forces on education finance. She characterized Washington’s funding problems as historic and systemic.

State teacher and administrative salaries are based on “a snapshot taken several decades ago, inflated with cost of living increases,” she said. But that baseline data set in place inequities in pay between school districts that remain today, as some started at higher or lower levels and remained there. “The State never updated (its allocation) to what districts actually have to pay today,” she said.

Teachers in the Everett School District, for instance, earn 5 percent more than neighboring districts, which would have to use local levy money to try to close the gap and stay competitive. The lower-paid teachers are “doing the same job and teaching the same students, with the same learning goals,” Priddy said. That affects their morale and retention rates, she explained, resulting in lower-paying districts often losing their best teachers to better-paying ones. The fluctuations extend to administrators, where the annual salary paid by the State ranges from $57,000 to $80,000, with local levy money again needed to keep pay competitive, she said.

Priddy served as former state school Superintendent Terry Bergeson’s representative to the State’s Basic Education Finance Task Force, 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.

Last year, the State paid $468 per student for a school district’s non-employee related costs, dubbed NERCs, which included utilities, insurance, security, supplies and other categories. Bergeson wanted more than twice that amount: $1,100 per student. “Wild increases'” in the cost of fuel two years ago played havoc with district budgets, Priddy noted. She said she understood that in some cases, a 1-cent-per-gallon rise in diesel could translate into a $100,000 increase in fuel costs.

The increase in NERCs has dramatically affected the ending fund balances of school districts. “Districts have to make tough choices. As ending fund balances drop, districts are less able to respond to an emergency,” Priddy said, with the loss of the financial cushion endangering their solvency. “Smaller school districts have seen a much more dramatic change in ending funding balances,” she said. “They have less economy of scale, less money per student, typically, but their costs are similar to big districts.” For instance, a boiler replacement would cost the same, no matter the district size.

Although districts rely heavily on local levies to make up shortfalls in State funding, many are reaching their taxation limit, in some cases self-imposed. To pass their levies, some districts have made a commitment to their communities that they will not exceed a certain tax rate or levy amount, Priddy said.

State funding for the Learning Assistance Program, which provides academic support particularly to under-achieving, low-income students, also is “inadequate,” Priddy said. She said the number of teacher hours for students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch was “basically the same” between 1994 and 2007, even though achievement expectations have climbed much higher because of mandated education reform.

The current staffing model equates to a teacher having “30 minutes per day with 28 struggling students,” Priddy said. That runs counter to the optimum learning situation, which is having “small groups (of children) so the teacher could identify why students are struggling and could identify a plan” of correction. Priddy said Bergeson wanted an increase of $325 million in the State budget for the Learning Assistance Program and a $96 million increase for English Language Learners, a program to educate children whose native language is not English.

The State pays 34 percent of the costs for school construction, leaving districts with the other 66 percent, Priddy explained, and falls at least $6 million short in school repair grants.

NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne’s final questions to Priddy: Does the State’s basic education funding formula provide schools with the level of financial resources they need to operate? To teach the State’s standards? No and no, Priddy replied.

Coming up on Monday: Dan Grimm, chairman of the State’s Basic Education Finance Task Force, is expected to testify. Erin Jones, assistant superintendent at the Center for the Improvement of Student Learning at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, also might resume her testimony from September 9.

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