Island Forum | A call to action: Education funding crisis hits home

Gary Plano, Pat Braman, Mike Radow, Stowe Sprague
Island Forum

Clearly, Washington State falls short of its constitutional ‘paramount duty’ to fund basic education. So much so in fact that the voters had to take matters into their own hands and approved I-728 funding in order to lower class size, provide professional development and extend learning opportunities for children not performing at grade level – all obvious obligations that should be funded as basic education.

On Mercer Island, I-728 amounts to $1.7 million in funding that pays for 17 teachers, one additional contracted teacher/staff workday, programs for struggling learners, and money for professional development. I-728 dollars are the only means of maintaining reasonable class sizes. Consequently, the class size reductions intended by the voters turned into status quo class size maintenance due to continued inadequate state funding. Even with these funds, Washington ranks 46th in the country in class size.

Like I-728, our local school levies are also backfilling inadequate state funding in areas such as special education, transportation, health care, and cost of living adjustments (COLA).

In the coming biennium, Washington faces a drastic $5-7 billion deficit, and education – currently 40 percent of the general fund or 25 percent of the total operating budget – cannot be immune. One likely cut is all or part of I-728. This cut serves up a double blow; the School District loses I-728 funding and it also sees its renewal levy significantly shrink because the levy formula is calculated with I-728 in its base. The State is likely to also pass on more pension responsibility and other funding cuts.

While the final budget compromise will arrive late spring, the School District calculates that Mercer Island may see 2009-2010 cuts in the range of $1.1 to $3.4 million. This is a significant blow to the District’s $40 million budget. The District already cut its budget every year for the last four due to rising costs, unfunded mandates, and pension costs switched from the State. School programs will be tangibly altered after hard budget decisions are made.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. After 30+ years and 103 earlier studies, the most viable recommendation for redefining basic education for WA kids was finalized by the bi-partisan Basic Education Funding Taskforce in December. It is now ready for legislators to discuss it as a basis for a true solution to adequately fund education. The recommendation gives flexibility and full funding to school districts to meet performance standards which are transparently trackable for district accountability to the community. The recommendation has an envisioned rollout extending from 2011 to 2017.

As with many crises, the silver lining is that the community pulls together to help each other out. The PTA, School Board, School Administration, Schools Foundation, and teachers are working together to involve the education – and wider Island - community in understanding the scope of the funding crisis, and how we can best triage education for our children, the foundation for our future.

We invite you to attend an Education Summit on January 29, from 7-9 p.m., in the Islander Middle School’s Multi-Purpose Room. Superintendent Gary Plano will share the emerging state budget information and its impact on Mercer Island decision-making, and the PTA and Schools Foundation will lead smaller roundtable discussions for input and formulating a community response.

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