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Island school boards talk funding problems

Oak Harbor School District Superintendent Rick Schulte was surprised to hear the state had increased funding $900 per student this year.

After doing some research, he found the Oak Harbor School District only received a $471 increase per student. He asked local legislators at an all-island school board meeting to explain the difference.

“We only got half of that and I want the rest of my money,” Schulte said Tuesday night at a joint meeting of island school boards and State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen and Reps. Chris Strow and Barbara Bailey.

Schulte questioned how the state counted the students and how the state came up with the $900 figure. He didn’t get any immediate answers but appeared to get some satisfaction just from asking the questions.

School board members and the legislators talked about priorities coming up in the 2008 session, which starts in January.

Prominent in the discussion was how to resolve “unfunded mandates” the school districts deal with each year.

Officials from both the Oak Harbor and Coupeville school districts presented the legislators with lists of the unfunded mandates they have to pay without enough funding from the state. In Coupeville, the list covers everything from substitute teacher costs to vision and scoliosis screenings.

Sen. Haugen cautioned the school boards about complaining too much about unfunded mandates. Ultimately, each mandate is the result of people asking for them, she said.

Haugen also encouraged school boards to find out which laws don’t make sense in the modern world of education.

“We need to hear from you about what isn’t working,” Haugen said.

Coupeville School Board member Kathleen Anderson said that with the mandated testing and training needed for staff, the school district struggles to provide the required 180 days of instruction during the school year. She said the state needs to fund more hours during the school year.

“You’ve got to look at the big picture,” Anderson said.

She added that local levies, which were originally meant to fund extras, are being used to pay for basic education.

“The add-ons aren’t there anymore,” Anderson said.

Rep. Bailey was sympathetic to school funding challenges.

“I don’t believe we should be adding more mandated items to an already overburdened school district,” Bailey said.

The legislators also highlighted the priorities they see with education. Bailey emphasized the importance of fully funding basic education and what she sees as the need to change the culture inside schools.

Strow said that he wants to focus on the funding formula for capital projects and would like to see high schools require four years of math for all students. That would make students more competitive in the global economy.

Vicki Harring, Oak Harbor School Board member, said the district is struggling to schedule extra math that’s already been approved and is having trouble finding suitable math teachers.

Anderson added that Coupeville has been working toward offering additional practical courses that will help students prepare for a career without necessarily going to a four-year college. She was concerned that the high school business teacher retired at the end of the school year and budget cuts prevented officials from hiring a replacement.

While school districts struggle with staffing issues, Schulte said there are problems paying for non-employee costs as well.

The school district receives approximately $3 million from the state to pay for such costs as utilities, maintenance and insurance. And that is $29,000 short of the actual cost and doesn’t include items that are beneficial to the classroom.

“There’s no money left for textbooks, libraries and technology,” Schulte said. “It’s a huge problem for the school district.”

The school board members met for more than an hour-and-a-half with the legislators in the Coupeville High School music room while parents attended teachers conferences.

Each school board was asked to submit a list of unfunded mandates they would like to see eliminated. Haugen encouraged them to stay involved as officials work to refine the definition of basic education.

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