Reconnect with schools this month

A state flush with cash, and overwhelming voter support to funnel funds into local school coffers.

November 2000 it was, and a sense of optimism about public school funding was pervasive, contagious even. Twin initiatives – I-728, steering the state’s excess revenues and lottery funds to local districts for new teachers and classrooms, and I-732, mandating long-needed teacher and staff pay raises – had prevailed by wide margins. Projections were that Bainbridge public schools would get $6 million over five years – big money for a district that runs on about $27 million annually.

“It could be that the most important thing about the initiative may not be the legislation itself, but that it demonstrates decisively to Olympia that the overwhelming percentage of people in Washington support education,” one school board member told us confidently.

How long ago those days now seem. The state’s voters having since decreed that taxes be slashed even after finding new and better ways to spend them, the surplus is gone; to balance the budget, the governor now would sacrifice the

hard-won gains of public education and suspend the initiatives.

School funding is going to be in the news a lot this month, in these pages and in the regional media. First up is the question of state support for local schools. On Jan. 14, class will let out for the day as island educators and parents hundreds strong join their Washington colleagues for a rally in Olympia. Close on the heels of that dramatic day, absentee ballots will appear in island mailboxes asking voters to decide a four-year, $24.4 million for maintenance and operations levy for local schools for 2004-2007. The polls themselves will be open Feb. 4.

If you’re not quite sure how those components fit together, you’re not alone; it’s a complex and unwieldy system by which we support the education of our children. Here’s a primer:

State general and special-purpose funds make up about 59 percent of Bainbridge Island School District’s budget. Another

9 percent comes from federal and miscellaneous sources. Island voters are asked to come up with the balance, about 19 percent of district funding for teacher and staff salaries, training and curriculum work, building and grounds maintenance, and transportation.

(One caveat is worth noting: School districts are by state law locked into levy lids, fixed as a percentage of state and federal funding but varying wildly by district. That’s why, with less money coming from the state under Locke’s budget plan, districts would actually take a second financial hit. With a lower base, they would be limited to fewer supplemental dollars regardless of local voters’ willingness to pay. )

If you have occasion this month, ask your legislators – Phil Rockefeller, Bev Woods and Betti Sheldon – what they think of the governor’s plan to target education to make up the state’s budget shortfall. Ask them why on a per-capita income basis, Washington ranks just 41st in state funding of public education. Also ask them what they think about the arbitrary cap on local school levies (or if they even understand it), and what they might do to level the playing field for all districts.

Then ask your school board members and district officials how they spend the dollars, and what their plans are for the next four years. Find out where the local levy money goes.

Finally, ask yourself about the quality of your child’s education, and whether you’re confident they will graduate with knowledge and skills for adulthood. And reevaluate your own relationship with our schools and where you can get involved.

The education of our youth is everyone’s issue. Take

some time and learn more – make January the month you go back to school.

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