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Young minds, big business: Public schools power the Valley’s bottom line

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Back-to-school shopping adds up for local retailers

Back-to-school shopping adds up for local retailers

Teacher Evelyn Wood had $400 this year to buy supplies for her classroom and students. She spent every dime.

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Editor’s note: The average annual wage/benefit payment to each Douglas County PUD employee was underreported in the original version of this story. The error has been corrected in this version.

The back-to-school shopping frenzy swung into full motion last month en route to an estimated $26.7 billion national family spend-a-thon that, for many retailers, is second only to the winter holiday gift season.

But school districts feed the local economy in more ways than that. Many more.

With their huge payrolls, big construction budgets and spending on everything from hamburger patties to school-bus tires, school districts are financial machines that propel local economies with their sheer size and spending muscle.

It isn’t a rarity in communities that school districts are either the largest or among the largest economic drivers,” says Rich McBride, superintendent of the Wenatchee-based North Central Educational Service District (ESD). “It is always important to realize that when you’re talking about economic development, the other ‘e word’ is ‘education.’ ”

Collective school-district spending in Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties approaches $614 million annually, according to statistics for the 2013-2014 school year provided by McBride’s ESD. Chelan and Douglas counties, alone, account for more than $292 million of that total.

In Chelan and Douglas counties, some 78 percent of the districts’ total expenditures are necessary just to keep the school doors open. These are the funds used to pay teachers, administrators and support staff; keep the grounds and buildings in good shape; pay power bills; and buy everything from hamburger patties to diesel fuel.

3,245 Paychecks

Payroll, including benefits, totaled nearly $116 million for all 2,159 employees of Chelan County’s seven school districts. Annual payroll for the 1,086 employees of Douglas County’s six school districts totals nearly $59 million, according to ESD figures.

This is more total payroll and employees than, for example, both Chelan and Douglas PUDs combined, although the wage/benefit mix at the PUDs is higher — about $119,000 per employee at Chelan PUD and about $114,900 at Douglas PUD. This compares to about $53,700 per employee in Chelan County public schools and about $54,300 in Douglas County schools.

It’s undeniable that with 80 percent to 85 percent of the district’s budget going to payroll, we are an intensive employee business,” McBride said of his ESD. “Those dollars turn over in the community.”

Garn Christensen, superintendent of Eastmont School District, agrees. “People forget that when they pay taxes, and those tax dollars go to school districts … we pay them right back in wages and benefits,” he said. “The taxes here are put back in the economy in the form of groceries, housing and education.”


School districts buy lots of stuff.

On food services, alone, the districts in Chelan and Douglas counties spend about $8.3 million per year, the ESD statistics show, and about $6.25 million on fuel and other transportation costs.

People don’t always realize the volume of business that is represented,” Christensen said. “Do people realize we have 240 tires to maintain (per year) or 640 gallons of ranch dressing?”

Many of the districts’ acquisitions are though large state or national contractors that have the cost advantage of buying in bulk across the entire state system.

At Eastmont, Christensen says the district must get three bids on all contracts valued less than $75,000. If they can, they’ll give the edge to local suppliers.

In our budget, part of our strategic plan is to buy local anytime we can,” he said.

So does the Wenatchee School District, according to Superintendent Brian Flones.

His district spends more than $3 million locally on office and school supplies, fuel, food and beverages every year, he said. Contracts with local service providers total another $1.1 million, he said.

Schools also bring money to the community by sponsoring athletic, artistic and musical events, Flones said. “They come for concerts and tournaments and stay overnight. That helps with local hotels and restaurants, too,” he said.


New schools, new buildings, upgrades of current buildings and general improvements account for large portions of many school district budgets, statistics show.

These construction-fueled capital projects accounted for nearly 30 percent of the collective school district budgets in both Chelan and Douglas counties last year. That figure approached 40 percent at Eastmont, which is undergoing an aggressive, four-year collection of capital-upgrade projects that will total some $75 million by the end of next year

The district has gutted and completely renovated Grant Elementary and Sterling Intermediate schools. It built a new gym and eight new classrooms at the high school, which is currently also undergoing a major renovation. The district purchased in foreclosure the old Kentucky Fried Chicken office building, near Wenatchee Valley Mall, to consolidate all district administrative services.

We have up to 200 tradespeople working on our construction projects right now,” Christensen said. “They’re staying in our community, or staying in hotels and eating at restaurants and spending money here. Some live here.”

Value beyond budgets

All this emphasis on school district and employee spending is secondary to staffers more inclined to focus on the greater value of their work as educators.

The investment today in education as part of our economic infrastructure goes deeper,” McBride said. “Our investment in K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade) is absolutely critical to the success of our community colleges and higher education. How critical is it to be teaching our young people the value of how to build their community through volunteer efforts?”

McBride points to district-specific efforts, like Wenatchee Learns, Manson Learns and Cascade Learns Live, that further these ideals by getting communities involved in education. Some even get students involved in helping local businesses solve problems.

We’ve got good, basic arguments about why we should invest in education,” he said. “I’d go a step further to say education will be integral to the way a business looks and feels and moves forward. We’re moving toward what is going to be a more community based, more mentor based, more personalized school. Businesses and business leaders are going to play a key role.”

Flones added, “One of the things we’re trying to do through Wenatchee Learns is get our community to understand the value of education. We want our students to be college and career ready, and we want them to come back and work in our community. We want our kids to be productive citizens. There’s the real economic value.”