Lack of state budget squeezes schools

School districts have been given a one-week extension to produce draft budgets.

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In her 32 years working at the Prescott School District, business manager A.J. Jacobson has gone decades without seeing the Legislature take so long to pass a budget.

But now, more than a week into a second special session, Washington’s lawmakers have yet to reach a compromise between House and Senate proposals, leaving Johnson without information she needs to write the district’s budget for next year. With little certainty about general education funding, school district budget managers are gearing up for a stressful summer.

“We’re putting together what we can. We’re not happy,” said Jacobson.

Across Washington, public schools receive about 66 percent of their general funds from the state.

In Walla Walla, district Chief Financial Officer Patricia Johnston estimated about half the district’s basic education funding comes from the state, in addition to extra funds for special education, transportation, school lunch and other programs.

Prescott, Waitsburg, Dayton and other districts in the area are similarly reliant on state funds.

In response to the Legislature’s tardiness, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has extended the deadline for draft district budgets from July 10 to July 17.

“It’s extremely rare for the deadline to be extended. The fact that it was extended that week is a really big deal,” said Kristen Jaudon, a spokesperson for OSPI.

The last time OSPI extended a budget deadline was in 1991. In general, even a late state budget doesn’t prompt an extension.

Although the draft deadline has been extended, final budget deadlines remain the same — Aug. 31 for larger school districts, including Walla Walla, and Aug. 1 for smaller ones. As a result, time for public comment and input on draft budgets will be shorter than usual.

Johnston said she’s working now to make a draft budget based on the worst-case scenarios for state funding. Right now, the lack of a state budget is making her job harder, but she said a late budget wouldn’t significantly impact district services next year.

“Mostly what it does to us is we can’t predict our revenues for next year,” she said.

Once a budget is approved, OSPI will plug the numbers into its Educational Data System, creating an application that allows school districts and other educational bodies to see general funding levels for budgeting purposes. Assuming the Legislature is able to pass a budget before June 30, this would give districts several weeks to produce draft budgets based on actual appropriated funds.

If a budget is not passed by June 30, the situation would become more dire. OSPI would enter a partial shutdown, and would be able to disburse funds only for federal programs and constitutionally mandated state programs. Most state funding for schools would dry up.

Johnston said the district has enough of a fund balance to pay bills for a few weeks without revenue.

“We could get through July, but that’s about it,” she said.

Right now, a shutdown is looking less likely. A new revenue forecast released Wednesday predicted $231 million more than expected in tax collections, leaving a smaller hole for legislators to fill. Legislative leaders indicated Thursday they anticipated completing a budget deal by the end of the weekend.

Paula Mosio, the business manager for the Dayton School District, said she was confident a solution would be found, and that funding levels for education wouldn’t change significantly.

“I think it will ultimately all work out in the end,” she said. “At this point we’re just being cautious. I know they’re working to do the best they can for education.”

But even if a deal is reached soon, Jacobson was upset to see it take so long.

“They’re fooling with kids’ education and their lives,” she said. “Why would you do that?”

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