New state funding formula results in deficit budget for Lopez School

Submitted by Lopez Island School District

New state-mandated restrictions on the local funding of schools are adversely impacting Lopez Island School District. The restrictions have cost the district over $350,000 in local funding this year. As a result, the Lopez Island School Board at its August 9 meeting approved using up to $300,000 in reserves to cover anticipated shortfalls in the 2019-20 school year budget.

“We have built a healthy reserve level and have chosen to use those funds to preserve our current educational program,” stated school board chairperson John Helding. “We can afford to do that for the upcoming school year, but not longer. To avoid future program and staffing cuts, we have already begun the effort to get the legislature to restore our local funding authority.”

Other San Juan County schools have been similarly impacted. Across the county, approximately $1,000,000 in local funding authority has been lost. San Juan and Orcas school districts have responded with a mix of program and staffing cuts as well as by tapping into their own reserves.

These funding shortfalls have arisen from the seemingly unintended consequences of the new school financing formulas put in place over the past two years in response to the McCleary decision by the State Supreme Court requiring the State of Washington to fully fund basic education needs.

To that end, the new McCleary school financing legislation provided additional state monies for needed increases in teacher and staff salaries, as well as to increase spending levels in school districts who historically have had below-average per-pupil funding levels. At the same time, the legislation imposed severe restrictions on the use of locally approved school levies which have typically supported districts with higher per-pupil costs as well as unique programs such as Lopez School’s nationally recognized farm-to-school food program.

For Lopez and many other school districts, the new law restricts local funding to $2,500 a student. When enacted, the thought was this one-size-fits-all ‘local levy lid’ would create equal classroom funding across the state. “While conceptually that might seem sensible,” stated Helding, “in practice it fails to take into account the many differences among school districts.”

For example, San Juan County schools face increased island costs for materials, services, and transportation. Local funds cover those increased costs. Lopez School has a higher percentage of special needs students than what the state will fund. Local funds are used to make up the difference. Lopez has higher school nurse costs given the particular needs of our students and unique island staffing challenges and costs for that position. Again, the difference is made up by local funds.

“For districts that don’t have these extra costs, they end up having more to spend on direct educational programs than those of us who do,” shared Helding. “This one-size-fits-all formula ends up not being at all equitable or fair.”

To address the situation, San Juan County schools along with others statewide are seeking a change or ‘fix’ to the school financing formulas during the legislature’s winter 2020 session. Importantly the change being sought does not require any increase in state funding.

Lopez school board member Dixie Budke explained, “We are not asking for a penny more from the legislature. We just want them to give us back the flexibility we always have had to cover local costs differences and needs with the money our own taxpayers have already generously approved. This is an issue of whether Olympia or Lopez knows better as to what we need to do to keep a vibrant school alive on our island.”

San Juan County school leaders have been meeting with local state legislators who have voiced support and offered assistance for getting local funding authority restored.

Representative Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, shared, “The needs of school districts in our island communities are incredibly unique. Over the course of the next few months, I will be hosting listening sessions with local school districts to hear how they have been impacted and what we can do better during the 2020 legislative session.”

Senator Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, stated, “We know that last session’s school financing fix left out a number of school districts including Lopez. I am committed to fighting in Olympia to once again allow school districts, especially ones like Lopez, to spend their own local dollars to keep their schools vibrant and financially stable.”

Working with these legislators, Lopez Island School District will be gearing up lobbying efforts this fall. More information on those plans will be forthcoming.

“We have such an amazing program at Lopez School,” expressed school board member Budke. “We will not let it be crippled by the unintended effects of this change in school financing formulas. We simply can’t allow that to happen.”