MLSD mulling major spending cuts

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MOSES LAKE — The Moses Lake School District is facing a looming financial crisis that will require the district to cut roughly 20-25 percent of its budget within the next four years.

Which means this school year’s proposed 5 percent cut is only the beginning, according to MLSD Superintendent Josh Meek.

“The 5 percent is only the first bite of a much larger meal that we have to eat in order to get through this,” Meek told members of the school board at a heavily attended regular meeting on Thursday.

While the district is looking at a number of things to reduce expenses, at the Thursday meeting, Meek focused on the number of staff employed by the MLSD, and has begun to review all vacancies created by resignation or retirement to see if its actually necessary to fill those vacant position.

“It’s much easier to reduce a position no one currently sits in,” Meek said.

However, the board has not yet made any decisions about formal cuts to this year’s district budget.

According to Meek, the crisis is the result of the new funding mechanism enacted by the state legislature in 2017 in response to the State Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in McCleary v. Washington, which found that the legislature was in violation of Article IX of the state constitution, which states that it “is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children” in Washington.

“Yes, the state did some thing in more adequately funding education,” Meek said during a heavily attended, regular meeting of the Moses Lake School Board on Thursday. “However, that is not the full story.”

The state’s so-called “McCleary Fix” increased state funding for teacher salaries through the imposition of a second state school property levy of $1.09 per $1,000 in assessed value.

In exchange, the legislature capped the local property levies for school funding at $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value. Until the end of 2018, the MLSD collected $4.62 per $1,000 in assessed value as it’s local levy.

Because of this, the amount of local money — and state matching or equalization money — available to the district has fallen from around $25 million through the end of 2018 (roughly 23 percent of total revenue) to a little less than $13 million (about 11 percent of total revenue).

While the district will be in the black financially this year and next, by the 2020-21 school year, the MLSD will be facing a $25 million shortfall because of the new state funding formula.

“I’ll challenge anyone who tells me the state is fully funding education,” Meek said. “They’re not.”

Yes, Meek said, the state has increased education spending, but much of it is targeted, and individual school districts have little flexibility on how that money can be spent.

The state has also has in place what Meek called an unrealistic school funding formula which dictates how many teachers, principals, counselors and even classified staff a district needs per number of students.

For example, according to Kristi Hofheins, MLSD executive director for teaching and learning, the state may fund one counselor for every three elementary schools and count that as fully funded basic education.

“So, the way our levy works, we supplement (that) with our levy funds to put a counselor at each elementary school,” she said.

Meek said the state funding formula also provides nowhere near the funding the MLSD has for support staff, especially paraeducators, and that the district has very purposefully provided funding for classroom support at four-and-a-half times the state formula.

“That was very intentional on our part,” said Board Member Vicky Groff. “We wanted each student to have a relationship with an adult when that is possible.”

Which means that many of the MLSD’s enrichment programs — such as athletics, music, counseling and additional vocational education — and the people who staff those programs are now at risk because of the looming loss of funding.

“The formula is not realistic,” Meek said. “However, that is their funding formula.”

“We are going to have to make some steps to get close to being to that number if not within that number, unfortunately,” Meek said. “That’s a real challenge for us from a budget perspective.”

The superintendent also said he did not expect the legislature to address the problem with the “McCleary Fix” any time soon.

This year, how effectively Meek and the other senior district leaders get to the 5 percent will affect the size of their bonuses as part of their new employment contracts. The more effectively they can cut, the bigger their compensation will be at the end of the school year — something one audience member called “backwards logic.”

“I don’t think it’s backwards logic to give people compensation when they do excellent work,” said Board Member Elliott Goodrich. “Our team does excellent work. We look forward to rewarding them commensurably to the achieving of these goals.”

Meek’s annual base pay under his new contract, which was approved late last year, is just under $200,000 without a bonus.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com

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