School Funding Reform
Last June, when the state Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature finally complied with the McCleary decision, many lawmakers declared “Mission Accomplished!” as if it was completed after six grueling years.
You may remember those legislative sessions (I do) where Legislators sought a solution that would reduce local school districts’ reliance on local levies to pay teacher and staff salaries—and place more of that responsibility on the state. The Legislature also invested billions of additional funds into K-12 education.
We did a great job addressing the salary issue. McCleary, however, wasn’t just about salaries. It was about the state stepping up to do its constitutional duty to ensure our children get the best education possible to be successful in life.
Kids need a safe and functional school building in which to learn, not to be stuffed into classrooms like sardines. Across Washington, school buildings that have served our children well are coming to the end of their useful lives. Many are overcrowded. Some even border on being unsafe or dangerous. Unfortunately, the Legislature hasn’t done enough to address additional school construction needs.
School construction is funded through both the state and local sources. Local funds typically come from general obligation bonds approved by voters of the school district. The local school district may receive state money through several options, but primarily through a program known as the School Construction Assistance Program (SCAP). To be eligible for SCAP, the school district must have a space or remodeling need, and it must pass a school bond measure to show local support for the project or have another source for the local share of the construction project.
Unfortunately, SCAP funds only a percentage of specific square footage per student and only a maximum recognized cost per square foot of construction—a limit set by the Legislature.
When a school construction bond fails, opponents often say the cost per square foot was entirely too high. They have a valid point. Between 2015 and 2017, the average cost for new school construction was $328.18 per square foot. SCAP only covered $213.23 per square foot of qualified costs, leaving the other costs to be made up by school districts. Compare this to the average 2015 construction cost to build a home in Washington at $150 per square foot, half as much.
Those who blame our school boards for the high costs are mistaken. School boards are generally doing their best to meet the SCAP fund qualifications. It’s not the school boards’ fault. It’s the Legislature’s. Policies approved by the Legislature have driven up school construction costs.
Some examples of these policies include:
A set of high-performance building standards that mandated public buildings, including schools, be constructed to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver standard.
Frequent updates to the state building and fire codes have significant cost impacts.
The state charges sales tax on the cost of construction materials. This is like the state paying itself and getting a rebate back from the local school districts in the form of sales taxes. This drives up local costs.
The state requires prevailing wages be paid to construction and maintenance contractors for work paid by public funds, including school construction. That’s much different from home construction.
SCAP funds only cover specific expenses, largely leaving school districts to find other ways to cover costs.
Many schools have trouble qualifying for SCAP. Districts with low property values may have trouble qualifying for bond capacity necessary to replace an aging facility. This is what prompted the Legislature to provide grants to distressed schools, to rural districts with less than 1,000 students and for emergency repairs.
Debt service on the bonds increases costs.
Bonds that fail in elections are usually higher next time because the construction costs increase each year.
The Legislature needs to take action to reduce school construction costs, increase funding and help those school districts in need of new facilities. I am glad the Legislature created a task force last year aimed at improving school construction funding, and hope the results of these recommendations will result in fixing how we fund school construction in our state.
Meeting the demands of McCleary was a difficult task, but the mission is only partially accomplished. When we can ensure our kids have a safe, functional and affordable place to learn in every Washington school district, only then can we truthfully declare “Mission Accomplished!”
Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard, is a member of the House Education and Appropriations committees. She represents the 26th Legislative District.