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Fair funding for education: State Senate bill targets school district salaries

Federal Way’s fight for fair education funding will continue in the Legislature with another bill.

If passed this session, Senate Bill 5568 would start a six-year process that would equalize school district staff salaries. The bill would also require that districts annually report the salaries and benefits of each staff member to the state Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction.

The bill would address salary equalization by raising state per-pupil funding for some districts.

Reintroduced by Sen. Tracey Eide (D-Federal Way), the bill is a direct response to the issue of fair education funding raised in a 2006 Federal Way schools lawsuit against the state.

The bill would open the door to allowing districts that qualify for equalization to raise levies, as levy rates are based on the amount of money districts receive from the state. Optimism that the bill will go anywhere is low because it would require an increase in state funding.

“We’re absolutely in favor of bringing teachers’ salaries in line,” said Jason Brown, president of the Federal Way Teachers Association union. “(State government) is cutting like crazy and, so, realistically, there’s not going to be money for it. But we thank (Eide) for shedding light on the importance of this issue.”

Brown pointed out that state budget cuts have led to proposals to increase class sizes, freeze teachers’ salaries and stop pay increases for teachers who attain special certifications.

The bill addresses a funding inequity that was a result of the 1977 Basic Education Act. A salary schedule was formed at the time that allowed some districts to pay salaries for teachers, administrators and other staff higher than the state average.

For example, a recent state document shows that in the 2009-10 school year, 12 districts paid between 0.6 and 5 percent higher than the $34,237 state average for a first-year teacher. Of those 12, Everett is at the top, paying a starting salary of $35,936; on the bottom is Oak Harbor, which pays $34,459. Federal Way is not among the 12 districts.

The bill was introduced during the 2009-10 Legislative session by Eide and Sens. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell) and Steve Hobbs (D-Stevens Lake) as Senate Bill 5379.

According to a 2009 financial summary of the bill, it would cost $72 million in the first two years to equalize teachers’ salaries statewide; the next two years would cost $47 million to equalize school district staff; the last two years would cost $59 million to equalize administrative salaries.

The state would also have to pay out in levy equalization funds — money given to districts that lack large property tax bases. This was estimated to cost $12.6 million per year, pending that no district raises new levies.

The state predicted in 2009 that equalization would cost $655,500,000 by the 2013-15 budget biennium.

Federal Way School Board member Suzanne Smith, who is the board’s legislative liaison, said that SB 5568 addresses all points of the district’s 2006 fair funding lawsuit: salary equalization over six years; taking on the salary inequities between districts of teachers, administrators and other staff; and realizing the effect salary equalization would have on levies.

The district got a win in the suit in 2007, when a King County judge ruled the state’s funding formula unconstitutional. That decision was overturned by the state Supreme Court in November 2009. At the time, Assistant Attorney General David Stolier, defending the state’s position, said the funding issue was one of policy and for the Legislature to decide.

Federal Way’s legal rationale for suing the state over disproportionate funding is a section in the state Constitution that deems the state’s first priority is education, including its funding.

In 2009, former superintendent Tom Murphy and Assistant Superintendent of Business Affairs Sally McLean, among others, testified in support of the bill at a committee hearing. A summary of testimony stated that supporters called the state’s funding formula “irrational.”

The bill has been referred to the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, on which Eide serves, though its agenda through Feb. 10 does not show the bill coming up for discussion.

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