State official talks schools shortfall

Snoqualmie Valley Schools had better brace for a potential $2.6 billion statewide budget cut in the coming year, warns Isabel Muñoz-Colón, senior budget analyst for the state superintendent’s office.

Presenting an overview of the state school budget crunch and where it came from, Muñoz-Colón spoke at a Thursday, Jan. 7, school board work session at Snoqualmie Middle School.

Asked if a recovery is coming anytime soon, Muñoz-Colón explained that the state economy is expected to slowly improve this spring. State coffers will recover more slowly, as consumer spending will take longer to rebound.

“What I’m hearing from legislators and the governor is this is a three or four year issue,” she said. “We’re going to be have to manage, in terms of not having the revenue to support programs we’ve supported in the past.”

Over the last five years, school officials have found several problems in the ways the state funds — or underfunds — Washington school districts.

Causes of financial struggle

Three key culprits in shorthanded school budgets are transportation, non-employee related costs and the cost of paying for the full value of staff members.

Several years ago, the Joint Legislation Audit Review Committee did an analysis of transportation formulas and realized the state had been underfunding schools to the tune of $100 million annually.

For many years, the state’s transportation formula was based on reimbursing only for the distance from school to home and back.

But not all bus routes are the same, Muñoz-Colón said. Geography and other factors make some trips more expensive than others.

“We weren’t completely reimbursing districts to get that student, pick them up and bring them back to school,” she said.

The committee also looked at non-employee related costs: utilities, maintenance, text books, curriculum, professional development, training and travel, library materials and security. They found a huge gap between what the state funds and what districts spend.

One example of that gap is the state’s book replacement policy. On average, districts get about eight years of life out of textbooks. But the state expects 18 years of use.

“That sets up the crisis we’re in,” she said.

According to Muñoz-Colón, the state also fails to fully fund teachers, principals, and other workers. Districts pick up the difference. Over time, that divide has gotten wider.

In the 2007-2008 school year, the non-employee budget was slated to provide $260 per student for the whole school year. But only about $140 per student was actually distributed.

“That was a huge gap,” Muñoz-Colón said. “But we were never able to see that because the state only gave lump sums out.”

New legislation created several working groups to dissect school funding and develop recommendations for how the system should be structured.

For example, the Funding Formula Technical Working Group, “took our current funding structure... and created a more transparent way of looking at school finances,” Muñoz-Colón said.

With the new funding formula, schools funding for staff and materials will be based on enrollment.

The state realizes its obligation to provide the basics, Muñoz-Colón said.

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