Washington Evening Journal
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Washington schools prep budget amid funding concerns
WASHINGTON — School district officials discussed financial plans for next school year at a work session last week, where administrators said they were planning on steady School Supplemental Aid dollars and a push for returns from the Students First Act passed earlier this legislative session.
While the district has a plan, Superintendent Willie Stone said he worried about the future of school funding as the state’s tax projections show a $1.6 billion drop in general fund revenue over the next five years.
“My biggest worry is where our funding streams are going as a state right now,” he said. “By FY 2026, we’re going to be short $1.2 million because of the 4% flat tax. And if they have the numbers to say, ‘Hey, here’s how we’re getting out of that,’ I haven’t seen that yet.”
Stone said the district would plan its spending around steady SSA allocations in the meantime.
While this legislative session saw the first substantial increase in SSA funding in several years, Stone said he did not expect lawmakers to push the number back down in the near future, citing political pushback to Education Savings Accounts in the Students First Act.
“I don’t think the leading party can afford to not at least give us a good number next year,” Stone said. “Because of how they passed SSA, ‘We have plenty of money, this won’t be a problem, it’s not going to hurt schools,’ I’m not sure the following year they’ll be able to come in with a 1% (increase.) … I’m hoping it’s more (years) than that, but the finances are somewhat worrisome over the next several years.”
District Business Manager Jeff Dieleman said a change by a fraction of a percentage in School Supplemental Aid would have multimillion-dollar implications for public schools.
To make ends meet, Stone said the district would coordinate with St. James — a private Christian school in Washington — on encouraging students to sign up for Education Savings Accounts.
While he said the district still opposed tax dollar spending on private education, Stone said the move would help minimize the bill’s impact on Washington, which he estimated could net $72,000 from a clause that pays public schools when students use ESA funds to leave the district.
“St. James, we have a great relationship with them and they are essentially a feeder school for us, so we will work hard with them to make sure every parent signs up for that,” he said. “Because, not only will it help those parents to not have to pay … we’ll get the $1,200 on top of that, so it will help the district that most of those kids will go to in the future.”
Other education officials were less optimistic. School Board President Troy Suchan said encouraging use of the accounts sent the wrong message.
He said the boost to private education would reduce opportunities for disabled students who may not qualify for enrollment, and risk movement of teachers to higher-budget, non-public institutions.
“At hundreds of schools across this state, they’re going to up their tuition the amount of what they’re getting,” he said. “It’s not going to change in the legislature if everyone’s sitting there going, ‘Oh, this is OK, this is OK’ … If everybody makes it nice and easy, it’s never gong to change back.”
Stone said he agreed, but that those risks were out of the district’s hands.
“I will keep fighting that because I don’t think that’s right, and I’m going to keep saying that’s not right,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m not going to turn money away that we can get for our students who are here, and our students that are going to come here … otherwise, they’re going to get the money and we won’t get jack crap.”
District officials said an early retirement option at the end of this school year would also help keep the books balanced. Stone described it as a “surgical tool” to trim down costs without layoffs or program rollbacks.
District Business Manager Jeff Dieleman said offering the package for staff every 5-7 years would free up funds to keep programs running. He expected the next offer to come in 2029.
“If you do big chunks every six or seven years, that helps your unspent balance,” he said. “This is really one of the only tools a board has to manage their budget, without cutting a program.”