Our schools face an unnecessary, looming financial disaster, and I’m upset.

8/21/2018 | TACOMA, Washington

Carla Santorno, Superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools


No doubt you have heard about the seven-year-long state Supreme Court case called McCleary. The court repeatedly told our state to fully fund education. Then in June this year, the Supreme Court decided that funding changes made by the state legislature had solved the problem. Case dismissed.

That was a mistake.

The funding formula put in place by the legislature created winners and losers. Some school districts—mostly those in wealthy communities—won big financial windfalls. Districts like Tacoma and Yakima with high-poverty urban neighborhoods actually lose funding in both the short-term and the long-term.

How bad is it?

  • Tacoma Public Schools will get $389 LESS per student beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.
  • That, plus inflation in costs of doing business and already built-in pay increases in collective bargaining agreements, equates to about a $25 million budget deficit for Tacoma Public Schools next year.
  • Without a legislative fix in the 2019 session, a year from now we face significant staff and programs cuts.


How does the new funding formula go wrong? Two ways:

  1. Our local voters have generously supported our students by routinely approving school operations levies that have generated about $86 million per year. This funding comes to us without restriction so we can spend it where we think it will do the most good for all our students. 

    We have spent it on hiring more teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors than the state funds, supplementing staff salaries, safety and security, preschools in nearly every school, elementary and middle school sports and many other things.

    In February, our voters approved a levy that would allow us to collect $72 million a year. But the state’s new formula limits our local levy to $40 million a year. That’s $32 million less per year than our voters said they’d support and $46 million less every year than voters have given us over the past four years.

    The state funding formula gives us $50 million in so-called new money—but our local levy dropped by $46 million a year, so that’s just $4 million a year more than we currently receive in total funding. Moreover, $14 million of that state money comes with strings attached. The state says we must spend it on things such as expanding career and technical education, transportation and other areas that are not currently our highest priorities.
  2.  The funding formula also includes extra money for districts where the cost of living is highest. So districts in and around Seattle and the East Side get more money that they can pass along in salaries to teachers and other staff while Tacoma gets 5 percent less in cost of living funding.

Where this hurts us right now? Tacoma has prided itself at being near the top of the list in the Puget Sound region for competitive teachers’ salaries—and it has paid off in our ability to recruit and retain the best teacher force.

All of us expected the outcome of the McCleary Supreme Court case to deliver ample and sustainable funding that included much more money for teacher salaries. However, the new funding structure adopted by the legislature did not actually raise overall funding across the board. Instead, the new funding adjusts funding levels in every district, and districts like Tacoma, Yakima and others are harmed.

We are now at the bargaining table with our teachers, where we want to stay competitive in the marketplace.

Two things are restricting us, which will close the salary gap on our competitive edge. Allow me to get technical for a minute.

  1. In the law approved by the legislature, school districts with an average teacher salary below the state average can give big salary increases. However, districts like Tacoma, which already had an average salary above the state average, are limited by the law to no more than a 3.1 percent increase for the 2018-2019 school year.
  2. Even if that 3.1 percent limit was not in the law, we didn’t get enough state funding to offer more than that. Due to the reduced overall funding we received from the state and local levy, we don’t have the dollars to provide more than that 3.1 percent increase for the upcoming school year.  

I, and certainly our teachers, expected the end of McCleary would mean more funding for Tacoma, not less.

I am not a lone voice in the wilderness on this issue.

The League of Education Voters (LEV), our state’s watchdog education advocacy group, in July did its own independent analysis of the impacts of the 2018 legislative action on school districts. Check it out at educationvoters.org.

It mapped every district in Washington. The LEV analysis shows Lake Washington School District in Redmond will receive a funding increase in local levy and state funding of 29 percent. Tacoma will receive only 5 percent. That’s a huge disparity.

No wonder that LEV lists its Top Two action items for the 2019 Legislature as:

  1. Direct investments based on student need. Any changes to the funding system should drive resources to districts based on the needs of their student populations.
  2. Create equity for high-poverty districts. Changes made to the funding formulas should address disparities created between high-poverty districts and low-poverty districts.


Our local legislators—Reps. Laurie Jinkins, Jake Fey, Christine Kilduff, Steve Kirby, Dick Muri and Sens. Jeannie Darneille, Steve Conway and Steve O’Ban—have fought for us. They can’t do it alone. The solutions for Tacoma and other districts statewide require legislators from across the state to come together to fix the inequities.

Our district, schools, principals, teachers and other staff have come together over the last several years to increase our graduation rate to 86.1 percent—well-above the state average—by focusing our resources and efforts where we know they will make a difference.

In the wake of this reality, my commitment to you is that Tacoma Public Schools will:

  • Continue to advocate for our students, educators, staff and families.
  • Work with legislators to fix the funding disparities under the new law, and allow us to collect the levy dollars we need to operate.
  • Continue our prudent and responsible financial planning to prepare for the shortfall in 2019-2020.