You need to be an optimist to advocate. And in about 60 days, a lot of optimists will converge on Olympia when Washington state’s 2023 legislative session begins. When it does, Washington’s 1,477 school board members will have a one-page document to complement their advocacy efforts, the 2023 WSSDA Legislative Priorities.
Each year, following its general assembly, the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) articulates its top priorities based on voting and feedback from its members, the school directors of Washington.
The priorities serve two purposes. First, they highlight the pressing needs of 1.2 million K-12 public school students across the state. Second, they serve as an indicator for legislators of where school boards would like to see lawmakers consider changes in policy or funding.
The priorities and the positions they’re based on are born of a democratic process similar to the creation of bills in the Legislature. Districts enhance their own advocacy efforts with WSSDA’s positions where they find alignment.
“Each school board has its own set of priorities for advocacy, but my hope is that WSSDA’s one-pager can supplement or even hone their voice into a unified direction for advocacy,” said Marissa Rathbone, director of strategic advocacy at WSSDA. “If it does, directors will be speaking with one voice, and therefore able to actualize results. I am excited for them to use the priorities document as a starting point for action.”
WSSDA’s 2023 priorities are:
“Being a mom of special needs kids myself, one of the legislative priorities that pulled at my heart was fully investing in special education,” said Federal Way school board director Luckisha Phillips. “We all saw the deep impacts of remote learning, and special education during remote learning was a different kind of hard. Our students and families have returned to schools asking for help, and directors across the state took the opportunity to advocate for the special education community and push it to one of the top legislative priorities this year,” said Phillips.
“The state sets an arbitrary cap on what they will and will not spend for special education students,” said Granite Falls school director Carl Cary. “Typically, districts have around 10% who are special education students. In our district, we are closer to 20%. The state, in the way it funds, sets an arbitrary limit on how much it will pay per student. The difference is money we have to take out of the general fund, which is what we use to pay teachers and keep the lights on.”
Cary continued, “due to no fault of their own, these wonderful kids just need more. The adults in the room need to coalesce for these kids who need more and deserve more. To remove the arbitrary cap, and to fully fund special education, WSSDA came together and made that a priority. That is very encouraging, and I was very happy to see that.”
AMPLE, EQUITABLE, AND STABLE EDUCATION
“There are a lot of things that impact my school district,” said School Director Carl Cary. Of Granite Falls. “One of the biggest is regionalization. Every four years, the Washington state Legislature recalculates the formulas used to allocate funding to school districts, but those formulas are outdated. For every dollar Granite Falls receives, the neighboring school district receives even more. They also happen to be a larger district,” said Cary.
“Being non-rural, it’s also easier for our neighbor to attract and retain diverse, qualified staff, especially because they can pay more. The challenge for us is that a teacher could live in Granite Falls but work in the neighboring town and make $20,000 more on the pay scale. Unfortunately, we had to try our best to be as close to those pay scale gaps as we could. That meant removing services and skinnying down. It’s tough to convince a teacher to stay if they have been here for 15 years with a master’s degree [which the salary formula rewards]. All the barbecues, hugs, and pats on the back aren’t enough to keep them when they can get $30,000 more a year just by driving down the street about 20 minutes.”
Aurora Flores, a board member for WSSDA and the Manson School District said, “in our district 69.5% of our students self-identify as low-income. This is almost 12% higher than the state average of 47.6%. As food insecurity becomes a real concern in our district, our state, and the nation, the importance of providing school meal programs that meet the diverse backgrounds, preferences and experiences of our students is more important than ever.”
“Research shows that many students are getting their healthiest meals at school and that those meals play an important role in supporting obesity prevention and overall student health by improving their diets and combating hunger,” said Flores.
“The research also indicates that student achievement is improved when children have healthy meals. Healthy meals contribute to healthy schools. Given the positives that healthy meals provide our students, WSSDA’s support of our priority to ensure that no student goes hungry during the school day by providing nutritious, healthy meals is crucial.”
CONSTRUCT SAFE AND HEALTHY SCHOOLS
“We have the largest and sixth largest high schools in the state,” said Steve Christensen, board vice president of Pasco School District. “Our largest high school has 3,164 students enrolled, so we need 32 portable buildings to handle the overflow. The next largest instructs 2,504 students and relies on 29 portable buildings,” said Christensen.
“We are in dire need of a high school, but to help us get one, the formulas for setting space and construction rates need updating. Current teaching methods require more space and construction costs have also increased.”
“But at the same time, we are a little concerned about equity and distribution of funds, so any update will hopefully make it more equitable statewide. We are not the only school district in this situation, so these formulas need to be adjusted.”
TRANSPORT EACH AND EVERY STUDENT
Eatonville is a small rural school district encompassing 440 square miles,” explains Ronda Litzenberger, WSSDA’s Small Schools Committee chair and vice chair of the Eatonville School Board. “Our buses transport students over mountains, around canyons, through valleys and across rivers. The current one-size-fits all funding model does not accommodate the long distances and sparse population of our community. Inflation has increased the cost of fuel, parts, and buses which has left us in dire need of reliable transportation. The inability to attract and retain a skilled workforce by paying competitive wages coupled with the tremendous amount of red tape required to properly train and license a new hire has resulted in extreme driver shortages. This shortage has caused daily bus route cancellations; directly impacting our most vulnerable student populations. No bus means no education for many of our kids. I see this lack of funding as an inequity that requires immediate attention.”