ML school board OKs budget, warns of looming shortfalls

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MOSES LAKE — It was a busy meeting on Thursday for the Moses Lake School Board, with members approving the $124.2 million 2018-19 operating budget, changes to the school construction bond passed in 2017, a new contract with teachers, and a 5-cent increase in the price of school breakfast and lunch.

Board members unanimously approved this school year’s $124.2 million operating budget but was also seeking 5 percent — $6.2 million — in cuts to that budget as forecasts for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years see the district’s operating shortfall as high as $25 million by 2021-22.

“It’s scary as anything can be. It’s really, really bad,” said board member Elliott Goodrich.

While the district is running a slight surplus this school year — in large part because the district is still collecting the local school operating levy at the $4.62 per $1,000 in assessed value — the situation will change dramatically after the new levy rate of $1.50 per $1,000 kicks on Jan. 1, 2019.

The new levy rate was the result of a legislative fix to a 2012 Washington State Supreme Court ruling which found that the state legislature had failed in its constitutional duty to adequately fund “basic education” statewide. The state legislature capped local property taxes used for education in exchange for imposing a second state-wide levy, which would then be distributed statewide.

However, the state’s projected share of assistance over the next few years does not appear to keep up with forecast increase in expenses.

“State law is different from local support, and state law says what we can do locally,” Goodrich said. “It dictates what we get. We appreciate the community support, but that doesn’t solve our budget problem.”

“There are strings attached to almost all state money,” added board member Vicky Groff.

While the district approved the budget without any cuts, one proposed reduction — which would save around $10,000 — would eliminate bus transportation from elementary schools where the Boys & Girls Club of the Columbia Basin has afternoon programs to the McGraw Family Clubhouse at Park Orchard Elementary School.

“We’re looking at areas where we may have to draw the line. I know that’s not popular,” said Superintendent Josh Meek.

The board also unanimously improved a $4 million budget extension — an addition to this year’s operating budget — in order to make Aug. 31 payroll, boosting this year’s budget to $111 million from $107 million. District Business Manager Stefanie Lowry said the additional spending was needed because the board had made “some conscious decision” to spend money on capital projects (such as the security improvements to Moses Lake High School) as well as an expanded 1-on-1 Chromebook program and expanded summer school.

The board also formally approved changing the 2017 school construction bond to reflect what it considers new priorities, and will now build two new 450-student elementary schools, a 700-900 student high school, refurbish the existing high school and improve security district-wide.

The $135 million bond to build a new 1,600-student high school was barely passed in February, 2017, and implementation of that bond was held up for nearly a year by a lawsuit brought by district voters challenging the certification of the bond election.

In addition, the board also unanimously approve a 5-cent increase in the price of elementary, middle and high school breakfast and lunch. The increase does not include milk and does affect the roughly 60 percent of students who are part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s free and reduced lunch program.

Finally, the board also voted 4-to-1 to approve a new contract with the Moses Lake Education Association (MLEA), with Goodrich the only member opposing.

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