MOSES LAKE — The Moses Lake School District is proposing a $122.5 million budget for the 2019-20 school year, a slight decrease from the current year’s budget of $124 million.
However, given that the district cut or found savings of about $4.4 million from its current year budget in order to deal with a looming major shortfall over the next few years thanks to changes in state funding formulas, the proposed budget is actually a slight increase from this year’s spending.
“Our main goal is to educate children, but we have to operate within a budget like any ‘business,’” said School Board President Elliott Goodrich. “Our motivation is to improve the education of our kids.”
This was the first of two public meetings on the proposed budget, which must be passed before the start of the next school year on September 1.
According to Stefanie Lowry, the district’s business manager, the proposed 2019-20 budget is about $47,000 in surplus, though projections for the next three years expect a deficit, though nowhere near as bad as projected at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year last August.
“Revenue will exceed expenditures by about $47,000, I’m very excited about that,” Lowry said.
The four-year budget projection now required by the state sees the MLSD running an $4 million deficit in 2021-22 and an $8 million deficit by the 2022-23 school year, nearly exhausting its current $12.4 million reserve fund.
However, last year’s four-year projection anticipated the district exhausting that reserve this year, and running at a $25 million deficit by 2021-22.
Lowry said in the upcoming budget, the district was able to shift some teaching costs from general funds to special Learning Assistance Program (LAP) funds targeted for high poverty schools.
The district is slated to spend $48.6 million on teacher salaries in 2019-20 — a slight decrease from 2018-19 — while it expects to spend roughly $29.2 million on employee benefits and payroll taxes, or $2.5 million more than the current school year.
However, Lowry told school board members that the district was going to face some extra costs once the new School Employee Benefit Board is up and running next January, since significantly more part-time employees will be eligible for benefits and districts will have to pay for them whether the employees take them or not.
“Even if they are covered by a spouse and don’t want it,” Lowry said.
“Do we need to encourage employees to take it?” asked school board member Vickey Melcher. “We have to pay for it, they might as well take it.”
Earlier this year, the school district sold roughly $50 million in bonds as part of the school construction effort passed in February 2017 (and held up in court challenges for a year). She said she expects the district to spend $18 million on construction of a new elementary school this year, as well as $5 million on design work for the proposed new mini-high school and $8 million for security improvements on the existing Moses Lake High School.
The district has also begun collecting the property tax increase on the bonds, and will begin making payments this year, she said.
Lowry said in considering the budget, the district assumed enrollment to increase only slightly over the next four years. The projected enrollment for 2019-20 is 8,549 students, including Running Start and students enrolled in the dropout re-engagement program.
That’s significantly less than the 8,857 for the current school year the district forecast last November, and the 8,631 students the district reported to the state in its July apportionment.
“Enrollment is not growing as fast as expected,” Lowry said. “We’ve taken a very conservative approach.”
The district also received an addition $1 million from the state to cover transportation costs, since that is now part of “basic education” and can no longer be covered by local levies, and a $140,000 grant from the Department of Ecology to help buy cleaner and more fuel efficient buses, Lowry said.
A number of school districts across the state have been hit hard following the state legislature’s attempt to fully fund “basic education” in 2018, which saw the legislature raise the statewide school levy while at the same time capping local levies at $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value and forbidding districts from spending any local levy money on “basic education.”
While the legislature has raised the local levy cap to $2.50, the MLSD is operating under the current $1.50 levy.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.