Politics & Government

Lawmakers consider region-based funding of teacher salaries

As state lawmakers look to overhaul how much they contribute to teacher salaries, they realize they’re trying to solve a problem that looks different in Omak than it does in Seattle.

Right now, the state gives local school districts a set amount of funding per teacher, no matter where they live and work. That leaves local school districts paying the difference between what the state kicks in for salaries and what hiring a teacher in their areas actually costs — a state of affairs the state Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional.

To fix that, budget writers in both chambers of the Legislature are looking not only to increase how much the state pays to hire school employees across the board: They’re also looking tie the state’s salary allocations to regional costs of living.

It’s an idea that faces fierce opposition from the state teachers union, whose members fear it could signal the end of their ability to bargain salaries at the local level.

“There are 295 school districts, so they do need the ability to meet their unique local needs, including when it comes to compensation,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association.

But Rep. Ross Hunter, the budget writer in the state House, said he doesn’t see any way to fix the problem other than regionalizing pay.

In its 2012 McCleary decision, the state Supreme Court said the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education, and must do so by 2018. Part of that means providing enough funding to cover the actual costs of hiring teachers and other school employees, which the court said were largely basic education expenditures and therefore the state’s responsibility.

Hunter, D-Medina, said he thinks the state first needs to raise what it allocates for starting teacher salaries by about 10 percent statewide. On top of that, the state needs to provide more funding for teachers working in the Puget Sound region and other high-cost areas versus parts of the state that are more affordable, he said.

“We have to figure out — if you did a data-driven look at your labor market — how much should you pay a teacher in Seattle? How much should you pay a teacher in Omak? And make sure we’re giving them that much money,” Hunter said. “We’re not close today.”

Hunter, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he thinks there still could be room for districts and unions to negotiate some details of school employee compensation under a regional pay model, particularly when it comes to paying classified staff and administrators.

“I don’t want to micromanage them,” Hunter said. “We’re not smart enough to micromanage them.”

But Hunter’s budget-writing counterpart in the Senate, Republican Sen. Andy Hill of Redmond, said he thinks regionalizing school employee pay would mean placing strict limits on local pay negotiations.

“If we have a statewide regionalized pay scale, I don’t know what the point is of collectively bargaining at the local level,” said Hill, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

He added that allowing local bargaining could become especially problematic since the Supreme Court has said school districts shouldn’t be using local levy dollars to cover salary costs that should be paid by the state.

There’s also the issue of how to pay for proposed state-funded salary increases for teachers and other school employees.

Hunter estimates that if the state were to pick up its required share of school employee salaries statewide, it would cost $3 billion to $3.5 billion over two years.

That’s on top of at least $1 billion that lawmakers estimate will be necessary in the next two years to pay for other parts of the McCleary decision, such as reducing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and expanding all-day kindergarten.

Both Hunter and Hill believe most of the costs of the salary increases can be paid for by some version of a levy swap: essentially, increasing the state’s property tax levy while simultaneously lowering local school district levies by a proportionate amount.

Because local school districts already are paying for regionalized teacher salaries using levy money, such a plan wouldn’t require much, if any, new revenue, both lawmakers said.

“We’d just be basically taking dollars that are being spent locally and collecting them at the state level, so it’s a reliable source,” Hill said.

The two budget writers both said they think the Legislature needs to solve its teacher-salary problem this year, including addressing the state’s unconstitutional reliance on local levies to pay for basic education.

Neither has introduced such a plan to do so yet — nor has Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who released his budget proposal in December.

Inslee told reporters last week that he is focused on giving teachers cost-of-living adjustments, but isn’t pushing the Legislature to regionalize teacher pay or make large-scale changes to how the state funds school employee salaries.

Inslee’s proposed cost-of-living adjustments and increased benefits for school employees would cost the state $596 million over two years.

“The most important thing this year is focusing on this reasonable COLA,” Inslee said. “I think that’s much more important than sort of a more philosophical argument about that larger issue.”

Hunter disagrees, saying the state must act now to satisfy the court ruling in the McCleary case. The court in September held the state in contempt over the Legislature’s failure to produce a court-ordered plan to fund basic education by 2018. Lawmakers face unspecified court sanctions if they don’t do more in 2015.

“I think the court’s going to make us solve this problem this year,” Hunter said.