The Battle Ground School District’s board of director in February asked voters to approve a property tax levy. And the voters refused.
As an education policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation, I regularly research school district policies and financial practices, and the levy failure makes Battle Ground School District interesting to me. When I check school districts, I generally look for two things — local spending priorities as demonstrated by how levy funds are used and service levels that families receive from the district.
In terms of levy priorities, I checked the collective bargaining agreement with the certificated employees to see whether student services or adult perks were the priority when spending levy funds. In November, all members of the school board signed an agreement with the employees’ union officials making a number of financial promises that impact services and demonstrate priorities for spending levy funds.
In that contract, I noticed an obligation to consult the union before deciding levy amounts and funding priorities. Based upon the contract, I think this provision has worked well for the interests of the union.
For example, the district provides levy funds for employee bonuses. Letting employees receive levy-funded pay bonuses is a common practice throughout the state, and in Battle Ground, the school board has spent more than $3.1 million per year on these for union-represented certificated employees.
The state provides an average salary of $51,909 and benefits worth $9,216 for teachers in the Battle Ground School District. The school board has decided to add an 8.3 percent levy-funded bonus to the wage. For these funds, the community receives three days of additional specified responsibilities when students are not present.
Levy-funded wage enhancements also happen for administrative and classified employees, but it is more defensible since the state is not providing an actual salary. The state sends the district a rough allocation of $58,439 per administrator and $31,260 per full-time classified employee.
Levies fund the difference between these allocations and actual administrator wages, which average $96,862 in Battle Ground. Enhancements from levies to make these state allocations into the actual wage for administrators and classified employees cost at least $2 million.
In addition to bonuses, the school board provides one day’s pay for employees who work 180 days without taking personal leave. The state allocation assumes sick leave but no personal leave.
Any attendance incentives are levy-funded. If all employees in the bargaining unit took this incentive, the district would pay more than $200,000.
Another levy-funded bonus is available only to the highest-paid certificated employees. Those who have been employed in schools for 21 or more years are able to claim between $175 and $700 or extra personal leave days.
More than 150 employees are eligible for this bonus.
Finally, teachers are able to receive wage bonuses for large class sizes. The school board has decided that for each student above the target class size, the teacher may receive $1,200 in wages at the teacher’s discretion.
If the priority was smaller class sizes, the policy would be something other than creating a financial incentive for larger classes.
In terms of service levels, the Battle Ground School District also is below average. Last summer, the School Board decided to shorten the school year by five days.
Only 10 districts in the entire state have a shorter school year. In addition to the shorter school year, the board has decided to make 23 of the 175 school days partial school days, further reducing service levels and efficiency.
When the legislature reduced the wages by 1.9 percent for the adult employees, the school board decided to shield the adults and instead impact students and families by withholding services on half of 10 school days — essentially a 3 percent service decline in return for a 1.9 percent wage reduction.
In other words, the school board has decided the priority is to translate adult wage decreases into even larger service reductions for the community.
From my seat in Olympia, I cannot say whether these factors are responsible for the public reluctance to support the levy in Battle Ground. Citizens who favor local control of schools should welcome sensible levies as the only money which is free of state and federal strings.
The priorities of the community are reflected in the use of the levy funds. If those priorities do not match those of voters, take it out on the elected school board — three will be on the ballot this fall.
Jami Lund is a Senior Education Policy Analyst for the Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank in Olympia. He manages the Local School Effectiveness Project.
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