Labor Day weekend is upon us and that usually means it’s time for the kids to go back to school. But if you’ve been paying attention you might have heard that many local SW Washington school district teachers are on strike and school may not start at its scheduled time. What’s going on? Why are there all these strikes? As the parent of a Camas middle-schooler I had the same questions and have recently done a little research on the issue. So read on if you want some more information.
The issue goes back to the McCleary lawsuit against the State of Washington which charged that the state failed to adequately fund basic education in violation of a Constitutional mandate. The problem arose over the years with many districts increasingly relying on local levies to increase funding for education, resulting in inequality across districts. The state Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs and ruled that basic education must be fully funded by state money, not local money. The legislature’s fix to the problem was to provide an additional $2 billion in funding for basic education distributed across the state’s 295 school districts and to place a cap on local levies, which can now only be used for enhancement and not basic education (eg, teacher salaries).
A few school districts that did not have levies and had low levels of local property tax funding for schools have received large increases in funding under the McCleary legislation. As a result teachers in a few of these underfunded districts have already negotiated large salary increases, in some cases up to 20%. However, many other districts don’t fare as well under the new McCleary funding model. Particularly hard hit are districts that have historically relied on larger local levy funds.
The local Camas community highly values education and through its strong support for local levies the Camas School District (CSD) has been able to develop a great school system. In fact, the schools are what have brought many people and businesses to Camas. The most recent levies were four-year levies passed in 2017 to support maintenance/operations and technology and these provide a number of benefits to students. Levy funds of about $17 million make up about 20% of CSD’s overall annual budget. http://www.camas.wednet.edu/about-csd/budget-funding/levies/
Unfortunately, the impact of the McCleary legislation will substantially reduce CSD’s levy funds. CSD will receive a nominal increase in funding from the state starting in 2018-19, which levels off and there will be an overall decrease in funding for the 2019-20 school year as levy funding continues to decline (see table). Adding to the chaos is that the state provided little guidance to local districts, essentially leaving them on their own to figure out how to handle the drastically changed funding system.
The state teacher’s union (Washington Education Association) saw the lack of state guidance and the new statewide funding plan as an opportunity to attempt to negotiate large salary increases on behalf of their members. The WEA held up as examples of what was possible districts that were able to provide 20+% salary increases due to the large windfall those districts received under McCleary. The local teacher’s union, led by Mark Gardner, appears to be pushing for double-digit salary increases, but has not publicly provided information about their requested increase. During the negotiations the district initially offered a 3.1% increase, raised it to 4%, and finally offered teachers a 5.7% increase in 2018-19 followed by another 2.3% increase in 2019-20. The teacher’s union rejected all of these offers and voted to strike. The district then requested mediation and here we are with less than a week before school starts wondering if the kids will be going back to school.
Camas has wonderful school teachers and even though they are among the highest paid in the state I would gladly do my part to help pay them more (we voted for the bond and levies and do what we can to help our school), but unfortunately the issue is not as simple as the slogan “support the teachers.” There are difficult funding and budgetary realities that we must contend with, especially in light of the future major loss of levy funding. The district administrators are mandated by law to sustainably fund the schools and, unfortunately for Camas, the McCleary legislation has not been kind to our district. Large double-digit salary increases could potentially bankrupt the district or require future teacher layoffs or staff cuts as well as cuts to other services, including: special education, library, health, and extracurricular activities; all things that help make our district great.
Everyone in the Camas school district is dedicated to helping our kids learn and it’s disheartening to see this come down to a strike and the acrimony it is creating in our district. I support the teachers, but I also support our dedicated administrators who I believe truly have our district’s interests at heart as they try to responsibly manage our district’s limited funds. Hopefully they can reach a suitable agreement and all the kids can return to school and continue learning. In the meantime, please call your local state legislator, tell them about the problem they have created in our school district, and ask them to fix the McCleary mess they have created.
By Ken O’Day, a Camas parent