Bainbridge superintendent says court ruling may force state to increase school funding

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A recent King County Superior Court ruling could mean significant changes to the Bainbridge Island School District's state funding.

The ruling, handed down by King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick on Feb. 4, requires the legislature to find “stable and dependable means” for funding education.

Like most districts across the state, Bainbridge has become more dependent in recent years on local tax dollars to fill funding gaps created by state reductions.

The district's program and operations levy, which passed with 70 percent approval on Feb. 9, makes up 20 percent of the 2009-2010 budget.

“For districts like us – that qualify for relatively little federal funding – we are very, very reliant on local dollars,” Supt. Faith Chapel said. “We have our local programs and operations levy that has been creeping up over time. We also have the technology levy – the state has not been funding technology. We have our bonds – again, the state doesn't give us funding.”

Even though the levy will provide district funding for the next four years, the local funds will be needed used to absorb further reductions in state budgets while the ruling is implemented in the State Legislature.

“The bottom line is this takes away all the excuses that the state has been using to be underfunding our public schools,” said Thomas Ahearne, lead attorney for the Network for Excellence in Schools and a Bainbridge resident. “The state has said (education) is just one of many important things we have to do and the ruling said it's the thing you have to do first.”

The state, which must trim $2.8 billion from its upcoming budget, will likely make cuts to health and human services, State Rep. Christine Rolfes said.

“The hope or the plan at this point is no further cuts to education this year,” she said.

Bainbridge's preliminary budget estimates include a $1 million reduction in state funding.

“We would certainly have to have some idea of what if any impact this has on certificated staff,” Chapel said. “We have until May 15 when we have to hand out notices if we think we might have to reduce. That's what happened last year and that's what led to the 'Save our Teachers' campaign.”

The district has eliminated $3.6 million (9 percent) of its $36.5 million budget over the last two years.

Since 2006, the district's state funding has dropped from 70.2 percent to 64 percent of the budget.

To fill the gap, the district has increased its reliance on local funds.

While Bainbridge's operations levy requested the maximum amount allowable – 24.98 percent of state and federal funds – local dollars have been stretched to make up nearly 30 percent of the district budget – a 4 percent increase from 2006.

“The percentage of (local funds in) the budget could very well go up,” Chapel said. “Not necessarily because the community is paying a lot more, but primarily because the state part is reducing.”

The district's technology levy will also expire at the end of the year.

The recent NEWS lawsuit ruling, however, could return levies to their original purpose.

Historically, levies were intended to pay for non-essentials, Chapel said.

“The court clearly found that using levies is unconstitutional,” Ahearne said. “Under our Constitution no school district should have to run any levy or any bond... There's not a school district in the state that could survive without local maintenance and operations or tech levies or bonds to fund construction.”

Despite a total projected shortfall of $1.8 million, the district can only look to local non-tax dollars fundraising campaigns or grants for additional funding.

“Almost 30 percent of our budget is coming from local (dollars),” Chapel said. “That just goes to show how dependent we are on PTOs buying supplies and things that schools might need.”

The teachers campaign, which raised $260,000 for the 2009-2010 school year, saved all but one threatened position.

“Should we be having to fundraise for teachers?” Chapel said. “No. I think that's the whole point of the lawsuit. It needs to accurately reflect what basic education really costs instead of some arbitrary formula.”

The state could appeal the ruling, thereby delaying any legislative action, Ahearne said.

“The only real reason is to delay because legislators are scared,” he said. “If they delay it gets them past the 2010 election and if they can delay it long enough – because appeals take a lot of time – they might be able to get past the 2012 session. (That's) in the spring, which pretty much saves their bottoms for the 2012 election.”

The day after the judge gave his ruling, Rolfes and a coalition of 30 lawmakers sent a letter to the governor and the attorney general, asking the state not to appeal the decision.

“The court did not tell us anything that we did not already know,” the letter stated. “The Legislature is not giving schools the money they need to provide the quality of education we want.”

Decisions may not be made until March 11, which is the end of the current legislative session, Ahearne said.

If no decisions are made by the end of the session, the governor could call for a special session in the summer.

“The state has all the revenue it needs to fully fund education today,” Ahearne said. “The problem is they don't have enough money to do the other things they want to do. They have to fully fund education first. That puts legislators in a tough spot.”

Brian Olson of the North Kitsap Herald contributed to this story.

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