The libraries in the Yakima School District are aging, with most of the books at least 20 years old. Principals “scrounge” for computers that also are growing outdated. A cafeteria seats 200 children in an elementary school with more than 500 students. And building maintenance? “I’d like to tell you we have a maintenance schedule, but we don’t,” former Yakima Superintendent Ben Soria testified Tuesday in the trial over education funding. “There are no resources to have a schedule.”
In a “tax-poor district” like Yakima, the challenges are daunting because of inadequate State funding and historic struggles in passing local levies, a combination prevalent east of the Cascades, Soria said. The 14,400-student, 23-school district doesn’t even try to seek the highest levy allowed – the maximum amount known as the “levy lid” – because “the levy lid doesn’t matter in Eastern Washington,” he said. “If you (asked voters to support an amount equal to) the levy lid, you wouldn’t pass.”
Add the district’s demographics – high numbers of Latino students whose native language is Spanish and who lack basic reading skills in English – and the task of trying to educate all children to meet the State’s standards grows even more difficult. Soria said 60 percent of the district’s students – and 85 percent of Latinos – failed the math exam in the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. Science scores in the WASL were even worse. “If we had adequate resources, we wouldn’t have to be scrambling as we do,” said Soria, who testified for all but about 30 minutes on Day 9 of the trial. “We’re superintendents but we’re basically required to be magicians… to try to meet the basic needs.”
Soria, who recently retired from Yakima, contrasted his last job with his previous school district administration posts in Tacoma, San Francisco and Albuquerque, New Mexico. “The needs of the Yakima School District are considerably different,” he said. “I don’t think the State recognized that in the past. It’s an incredible job just to stay afloat.” Across Washington, he said, “the gap is continuing to grow between haves and have-nots.”
Yakima is the third of 13 districts that will be closely examined during the trial. Six of the districts are in Eastern Washington, with three in Yakima County. Repeating the process he had used earlier in the trial while questioning superintendents from Chimacum and Colville, NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne outlined Yakima’s funding from various sources, creating a diagram that resembled a layer cake. In the 2007-08 fiscal year, the State’s basic education allocation to Yakima was about $80 million. If that layer was the district’s only funding, “we’d have to close our doors,” Soria said.
The State’s revenue total to Yakima grew to $106 million when including another layer, money from voter-approved initiatives 728 (class-size reduction) and 732 (cost-of-living increases for teachers). Ahearne asked Soria if Yakima could rely on getting extra State funding year to year. “That’s part of the problem,” Soria replied. “We can’t count on it.”
Yakima receives a layer of federal dollars, but that funding comes with “lots of strings attached,” Soria said. For instance, a district that accepts federal funds for certain programs must maintain that level of funding the following year, even if federal funds are no longer available, creating a squeeze elsewhere in the budget. Add a local levy layer and Yakima’s 2007-08 budget was $147 million, not counting $5 million for capital projects and student body funds. That “$147 million is not all we can use… not even close,” Soria said.
Responding to a series of questions by Ahearne, Soria said he was convinced that all of Yakima’s students could achieve the State’s standards specified in the Essential Academic Learning Requirements and other areas. But he emphasized that Yakima could not do so – or even provide its students with the opportunity to reach those standards – at the level of funding it currently receives from the State.
In her cross-examination, Senior Assistant Attorney General Carrie Bashaw said that Yakima had made a “significant improvement” in its dropout rate in recent years, going from 31 percent in 2002-03 to 7.1 percent in 2007-08. Yakima’s on-time graduation rate – the rate of students who graduate with their class – nearly doubled, rising to 75 percent in 2007-08 from 38 percent in 2002-03. Soria attributed the improvements to aggressive district efforts to work with parents, retrieve students and keep them from falling through the cracks. The district also entered into an agreement with the Mexican government to help educate ninth-grade Mexican students in Yakima who did not speak English. Those students are allowed to take online classes, taught in Spanish, that were developed by the Mexican government for core subjects such as math and world history.
Bashaw also noted that Yakima received $10 million from the State for levy equalization, a process by which the State attempts to equalize the collection of levies between districts of different income levels. And she said that Yakima voters passed a $114 million school construction bond this year that will bring an additional $102 million from the State. Soria pointed out that the bond request had failed multiple times previously.
Yakima also has made “dramatic improvement” in its 10th-grade writing scores in the WASL, Bashaw said, with about 75 percent passing the exam in 2007-08, up from about 40 percent four years earlier. “Yes, I’d agree,” Soria said. “But it still doesn’t mean all (are achieving).”
Roger Soder, a research professor of education who retired Tuesday from the University of Washington, briefly began his testimony as an expert witness. “Democracy, Education and the Schools” is the title of one of his books and the topic on which he will testify further. “We always have to talk about equity issues,” he said. “Everyone in a democracy has (to have) the knowledge and skills to be authentic, active citizens in the democracy.” Teachers must have a “double vision,” Soder said, working in schools as they are while holding “a vision of what schools should be.”
Coming up on Wednesday: Roger Soder, research professor emeritus of education at the University of Washington, will continue his testimony.