Expenditures per Student - 12th District

Following the 2012 state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision regarding education funding, the Legislature made big investments into K-12 education and also limited what school districts could seek in local property tax levies, although the property tax limits did not hold up for long. As the political dynamics changed in Olympia, the cap was removed, and taxpayer funding of education has continued to increase along with the scope of services provided by districts.

With so much focus in recent years on state education funding and school levies, many people may not realize the important role local school boards have in developing priorities, approving annual budgets, and overseeing operations. School districts are governed by their own elected boards and administered by chosen school superintendents. Districts receive the majority of their funds from state dollars on a per-student basis along with local and federal funds. School districts should prudently invest their taxpayer dollars (local, state and federal) to implement programs, negotiate employee contracts and manage their operations.

As separate entities, school districts do not all spend the same way. Washington state has 295 different districts, ranging from the very small to the Seattle School District with 55,000 students. As a result of local governance, state formulas and local levies, each school district’s expenditures vary. Generally speaking, the cost per student in small school districts is much greater than that of medium to larger districts.

In North Central Washington, for example, the per-student expenditures are far greater than the state average of $13,879 in the school districts of Palisades ($28,745), Mansfield ($26,342), Orondo ($22,125) and Waterville ($18,799), as well as many other districts. These costs are much greater per student than neighboring Eastmont ($13,737), whose spending is below the state average. The costs in many of our nearby districts may prompt some questions that we don’t often reflect upon but probably should. For example, should Mansfield and Waterville consider partnering as one district? Could Orondo, Waterville or Palisades consolidate with Eastmont? Could school districts like Manson and Lake Chelan function more efficiently together? What school districts could partner with Wenatchee? What other districts in our state could operate together?

I have long wondered why Washington state has 295 different school districts and whether that is the best approach for students and taxpayers. Based on my years as a school board member and as a legislator, I believe small school districts could potentially benefit from merging with their larger neighboring districts or with similar-sized districts. Strategic consolidation could create more efficiencies for taxpayers by driving down the per-student expenses while expanding options in academics and activities. The issue of school consolidation has certainly been raised before, and it is a messy proposition. However, these past proposals have considered mandating consolidations. My Senate Bill 5487 for the upcoming session would incentivize voluntary consolidations for improved outcomes and more efficient spending.

Senate Bill 5487 is a bipartisan bill that could help resolve inefficiencies while helping districts modernize their facilities, a need often shared by smaller districts. My bill would temporarily enhance the state’s School Construction Assistance Program (SCAP), which provides matching funds for school facilities to districts whose communities approve school construction bonds, if districts consolidate. This idea could encourage small school districts to voluntarily consolidate to create more efficiencies for taxpayers. It also could expand offerings to students and assist districts with their much-needed modernizations.

Our region has seen benefits recently from local government consolidations, including Wenatchee-based fire districts and the Chelan-Douglas Regional Port Authority. Washington state law (RCW 28A.315.235) provides a clear process for school districts to consolidate, including public outreach and community votes of the two school districts. Districts and communities should consider academics, school sports, extracurricular activities, student transportation, collective bargaining contracts, local tax structure, school identity and other factors when exploring consolidation.

While any decisions would ultimately be made locally after much consideration and public process, the financial figures would suggest that consolidation could be something local districts might want to explore, likely providing students with more options as well. With all the money being pumped into our K-12 public education system, it’s time to think differently about our educational delivery. Taxpayers are investing too much for us to do otherwise, and students could benefit from expanded opportunities.

Brad Hawkins is the state senator for North Central Washington and the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. Prior to the Legislature, he served for 10 years on the boards of North Central Educational Service District and Eastmont School District.

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