School Funding 101: Here’s what would-be West Seattle advocates just learned

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

During tonight’s Seattle Public Schools Board meeting, president Liza Rankin was hoping to brief her colleagues on where education-funding issues of interest stand in the ongoing Washington State Legislature session.

If that briefing happens before the meeting ends, dozens of West Seattleites will be able to listen with newfound knowledge after “School Funding 101,” at which Rankin was a guest speaker, this past Monday night at Genesee Hill Elementary.

PTA/PTSA/PTOs from all around West Seattle partnered to present the educational event, hosted by the Genesee Hill PTA, whose Advocacy Committee coordinated it, citing a troubling drop in public interest regarding school funding. The night’s other guest speaker was Vivian van Gelder, vice president of the Seattle Council PTSA.

Rankin – an SPS parent herself – took to the microphone first, starting with a quick explanation of the school board’s role, a topic she said could take up an entire night all its own. “Very basically …the role of the school board is to govern as a body, be representatives of the entire Seattle community … provide direction to the superintendent about what the community expects of the local school district. A key accountability of the board is “to hire and evaluate the superintendent,” one thing the board has “100 percent control over.” In setting policy, they are authorized to direct the superintendent based on majority vote of the board. And germane to the night’s topic, state law requires them to approve a balanced budget.: “Approving a balanced budget.”

Current board focuses, Rankin said, include focusing on legislation, supporting newly elected board directors (West Seattle/South Park’s Gina Topp is one of two and was present at the event), coalescing as a board and getting clear on our governance structure, as well as partnering with families and PTA/PTSA/PTOs. Personally, Rankin said, she has a goal of getting clear on what superintendent and district should do for engagement, and what the board and directors are expected to do.

After that, van Gelder stepped up with the toplines on where funding comes from. Federal sources include Title 1, IDEA, and about-to-expire pandemic-related funding.

State sources include the basic allocation, transitional bilingual program funding, and special education funding. Part of the looming budget shortfall, she said, comes from underfunding special education. Some funding also comes from the city, but it’s granted based on “competitive applications,” van Gelder said, so “not every school in Seattle that’s eligible for that funding is going to get that funding.”

In addition, voter-approved levies are part of the pie, as are private donors.

So how are individual schools funded? van Gelder explained Weighted Staffing Standards, which has been in use for 17 years. The staffing allotment is based on whether schools are classified as “non-high-poverty, high poverty, or very high poverty.” Then there’s “outside of district” funding – grants (for example, from PTAs/PTSAs/PTOs), donations, city levy money. According to van Gelder, there’s eventually “a really complicated list” based on enrollment, which “generates a document separated into two chunks,” one is the number of FTEs (full-time equivalents), second is money – and, she added, there’s not a lot of discretion unless a school has a larger percentage of students eligible for free/reduced-price lunch.

Building Leadership Teams (BLTs) have some input into how a school spends its funding dollars. van Gelder explained that BLTs go back to the era of the late Superintendent John Stanford and are now required in contracts between SPS and the Seattle Education Association union, “to promote and facilitate the collaborative decision-making process and to identify how to support the needs of students and staff in buildings.” They must support Continuous School Improvement Plan (you can find each school’s plan online). The team must include the principal and five union-represented staff. Those staffers get stipends for serving on the team. Family and community members might be invited to join the team but are not compensated, and, van Gelder noted, the meetings are often right after school, so not at times that are conducive for wide participation. But, she added, the BLT meetings are public, so she urged parent advocates to attend the ones at their school.

Once the district provides the funding allocation, she continued, a relatively “fast process” ensues – two or three weeks to review funding, look at everything through various lenses including the district strategic plan, the Racial Equity Tool, and state/federal law, and then make a recommendation. Two-thirds of all union-represented staff at the school must vote to approve it.

From there, van Gelder moved to the basics of advocacy. It’s important to be aware that legislators are funding many other things too, and your cause has a better chance of gaining attention if you can show that “it’s a problem for the whole state.” Education is 40 percent of the state’s operating budget, as shown in this graphic depicting the galaxy of what else gets state funding.

When you advocate, she advised, “bring everything back to the students” – it’s all about them.

That segued into discussion of the legislative session that’s under way right now. Rankin explained the “short session,” 60 days, often focused on reconsidering bills that didn’t make it out of the previous session. But “this session had a record number of new bills. “Cutoff dates” have passed – first for bills to make it out of the committees that have jurisdiction, then for the finance-focused committees to decide whether they could be funded.

You have allies in advocacy, she said – for example, every school board member in the state is a member of WSSDA (Washington State School Directors’ Association). Then there’s the statewide PTA. “Both have really good bill trackers,” she said – ways for you to go online and sign on in support (the state Legislature’s own site enables this too).

Contacting legislators is worth the time, van Gelder added, quoting a legislator as once observing that they “hear more about backyard chicken-keeping than about education.” What they hear about (from constituents) is what they pay attention to, she emphasized.

Before the program shifted into Q&A, attendees heard briefly from Laura Stowell of the West Seattle Public School Equity Fund, about its work distributing contributions from “well-resourced schools” to “underresourced schools.”
(We reported on the fund in 2022.)

Throughout the program, questions were invited via a QR code onscreen. Several were asked and answered. First, “Is it possible for SPS to set up a policy prohibiting PTA funds from being used (for school staffing, etc.)?” Rankin said the board wasn’t trying to disallow “outside funding” but “we want to be able to see as a board where the gaps are – if things are so important to a school community that they’re trying to fundraise for it, then other schools might like it too.”

Next, “how do we change Weighted Staffing Standards to reflect what our kids need?” van Gelder suggested a big-picture approach would be most beneficial – “do we need more reading interventionists or [should we] think about how reading is taught in our schools … we could put a lot more money in our system but if we don’t change the underlying structural systems we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Then: “If state spending [on education] has gone up, why does SPS have a budget deficit?”

Rankin said the increase in funding hasn’t kept up with inflation, when you consider how much more services and materials now cost. And since funding is allocated based on enrollment, which has been declining, that’s also factored into it – some students have gone to independent schools, some to homeschooling, some are just “not getting educated.”

Further explanation included the preponderance of “different one-time fixes in recent years, and we’re out of that now … this deficit has been coming for a long time, and the state’s out of bailouts.”

And she said that it’s a misconception that state education funding was “fixed” as a result of the court decision known as McCleary. What McCleary “fixed,” she said, was “an inadequate model from 2009” – but now it’s 2024 and much has changed. Right now, she said, they’re advocating for a temporary increase in the levy money they’re allowed to collect – something that voters already have approved but is not allowed because of a cap. That would mean $25 million for Seattle, Rankin said, a fourth of the deficit they’re facing for the coming year.

Shortly thereafter, the hour and a half meeting window had run out; a plan for breakout discussions already had been scrapped so they could get to Q&A, but attendees were invited to hang around a while and network – an important component of advocacy as well as the information the evening had provided.

WHAT’S NEXT: Organizers said they hope to present more educational events – so watch for announcements of those.

11 Replies to "School Funding 101: Here's what would-be West Seattle advocates just learned"

  • Orb February 7, 2024 (8:54 pm)

    The reason public involvement is low is because everyone involved makes it so complicated. Even this synopsis of the meeting seems like a lot of words with not very much being said. Maybe it’s just me. I want to be involved more but every meeting I attend seems to be no action and just talk. Gets discouraging. 

  • Mel February 8, 2024 (6:42 am)

    Not surprising I suppose, that there was no mention of the increase in salaries across the board (teachers and admin) that could be leading to this deficit too. People have been getting pay raises above inflation if I’m not mistaken. And they’re definitely above the increases those of us in the private sector are seeing. Just seems wrong to only mention that inflation is the reason for the large budget gap. Also, we left SPS because we found we could get a better education with less red tape at a local catholic school. Obviously that’s parent preference and even though it’s affordable by private school standards, not within reach for everyone. I just think the district could be honest with themselves about why they’ve had a drop in enrollment, maybe fix those problems and more students would come back.

    • teacher February 11, 2024 (9:13 am)

      you are mistaken. the last pay raise did not match inflation. The only pay raise that as above the inflation rate at the time was after the McCleary lawsuit against the state, but that was making up for over 20 years of no or 1 or 2% pay raises. WA state teachers are finally up to a fair rate of pay. You may want to balk at Admin raises instead. Teachers are the staff that makes the whole education machine work.

  • Phil February 8, 2024 (10:19 am)

    I would like to see a complete audit of SPS from janitors on up to the superintendent. Is the student population growing or shrinking? I’ve read articles saying both. We need to close schools but continue to renovate and expand schools. I’ve read articles supporting both. I know  school education and school buildings are different budgets but money is money and if it’s not being spent wisely there is a problem. Let’s take a look at the whole picture of school funding and see if we have too many schools for too few students and take the money from building and renovating and put it towards education. 

    • teacher February 11, 2024 (9:15 am)

      you can make that request – it is all public records. You are welcome to request those records at anytime. 

      • Melissa Westbrook February 19, 2024 (8:49 am)

        Just to note, Teacher, SPS public disclosure staff are anywhere from 6-12 months out for getting answers on public disclosure requests.

        • SPS Watcher February 19, 2024 (11:19 am)

          If you look at the PRR log, it seems that less complex asks are being fulfilled within a couple of months. 

          • Melissa Westbrook February 20, 2024 (11:32 am)

            If that is true, then they are dragging their feet on some of mine which would take about 5 minutes. Sigh.

    • Transparency February 19, 2024 (5:29 pm)

      Rankin worked to kill finance meetings and worked to reduce audit meetings to bare minimum required by state law

  • Fiscal Transparency February 19, 2024 (5:27 pm)

    I find it hysterical that Rankin is talking about Finance 101 when she worked to kill fiscal transparency and oversight within Seattle Public Schools.Rankin led the effort to change SPS governance structure. She was joined by board majority members Hampson, Hersey and Sarju. The new governance structure is called Student Focused Outcomes Governance. Part of the governance structure meant killing the Fiscal Committee-,as the district faces multi year deficits of $100m! As well, Aidit meetings decreased from every month to every six months. Operations committee is gone. And she raised board approved capital projects from $1m to $5m- and board approved operational expenses from $250k to $1M.Rankin won’t tell you that the district’s annual budget of $1.2 is HIGHER/ despite enrollment decreasing by thousands of dollars.The board lacks oversight and transparency. Don’t give them another dime.

  • Fiscal Transparency February 19, 2024 (6:59 pm)

    Clarification of second to last sentence: Rankin raised board approved capital projects from $1m to $5m- and board approved operational expenses from $250k to $1M.Rankin won’t tell you that the district’s annual budget of $1.2 is HIGHER/ despite enrollment decreasing by thousands of students..The board lacks oversight and transparency. Don’t give them another dime.

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