On the surface, the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision was a homeport victory for underfunded school districts throughout the state, and for the Chimacum School District in particular, where Stephanie McCleary still works.
Art Clarke, assistant superintendent of the Chimacum School District, noted the state Legislature was “slow to comply” with the state constitutional mandate that it fund basic education throughout the state, but acknowledged it eventually met the marks defined by the state Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court said, ‘Do these things, and you’ll be in compliance,’” Clarke said, noting the checklist included funding all-day kindergarten, enabling schools to reduce the numbers of students per classroom, increasing funds for transportation and addressing teachers’ salaries. “Their ruling said, ‘Let time be the judge,’ so for now, the case is considered over.”
The problem for Chimacum and other school districts is that the state Supreme Court’s definition of “basic education” funding still doesn’t cover a number of expenses that remain necessary to run their schools, from special education to custodians to nurses.
“We have students with health conditions we’re required to care for, from asthma to mental health, that we’re not receiving funding for,” Clarke said. “The Supreme Court may say the Legislature is in compliance with the basic education mandate, because it’s complied with the McCleary lawsuit, but we’re not fully funded.”
In addition to requirements such as special education, which are mandated at both the state and federal levels, the McCleary outcome also doesn’t fund school buildings, although matching funds are available.
Chimacum Superintendent Rick Thompson said the district has only five staff members to maintain and clean its 200,000-square-foot campus, and it doesn’t have the revenue for a school resource officer.
“The state set aside $15 million to help address these needs for small rural school districts that haven’t been able to pass a facility bond,” Thompson said. “Of course, we applied, but there were $110 million in requests statewide, so the number of districts asking for state capital grants far exceeds the available revenue.”
Thompson believes the shortfall in funding, especially in areas such as information technology, “exacerbates the need of rural school districts,” given how state-required achievement tests are conducted.
“They’re all online now,” Thompson said. “So you have to have money set aside for technology, but not every school district can run a tech levy.”
Port Townsend Superintendent John Polm said the McCleary decision actually limits the amount districts can collect per levy, either $2,500 per student or $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value, whichever is lower.
Polm said that’s why the voter-approved levy for 2019 differs from the actual levy for the year.
While the Port Townsend School District collected a rate of $1.53 per $1,000 for its education programs and operations levy in 2018, voters approved a levy rate of $1.66 for 2019, but the actual levy was adjusted to $1.06.
“The combined rate of the education programs and school support levy and the capital levy will be the same as the rate you paid in 2018,” Polm said. “In 2019, there is a reduction in local taxes due to the levy restrictions brought about by the McCleary decision.
To remedy that, the district asked voters in the Feb. 12 special election to approve an education programs and school support levy of $1.08, plus a capital levy of 45 cents, which adds up to $1.53, the full amount originally authorized to be collected in 2019.
“Voters would see an increase with the combined levies in 2020, as the rate would be restored to 2018 levels,” Polm said.
Polm credited Jefferson County Assessor Jeff Chapman with contacting the district so it could clarify that distinction.
“I do feel that the forced reductions in operation levies were excessive and are creating hardships,” Chapman said.
Chapman reported the state Legislature is evaluating several bills to remedy that situation.
“The problem is timing,” Chapman said. “If the Legislature relaxes the new limits, they won’t likely do that until later in the session.”
Polm acknowledged the McCleary decision had “enhanced” the school district, in spite of those restrictions.
“It’s allowing us to use local levy dollars the way they were always intended,” Polm said. “They were never meant to cover teacher salaries.”
The problem is the Port Townsend School District has many of the same custodial, health and safety, special education and disability accommodation needs as Chimacum.
“We have two buildings with no elevator access to their top floors,” Polm said, noting the 2016 bond covered an elevator for the main high school building, but the district still needed to pass a levy this year to install an elevator in the annex. “They’re still working out the math, but in the meantime, the whole system is dealing with equity issues.”