Port Angeles schools: State funding still short

Gap for special education widening, officials say

PORT ANGELES — The hundreds of millions of dollars the state Legislature directed toward K-12 education will provide financially stretched school districts with more support for special education, new schools and staffing, among other needs.

In the recently completed session, the Legislature directed $335.8 million in 2024 supplemental budget spending and $306 million more for school construction.

The Port Angeles School District will accept the funding that comes its way, but it will hardly move the needle on the district’s straitened financial circumstances or influence bargaining with paraeducators, who are seeking a 3.7 percent wage increase and have voted to authorize a strike April 8 if their demands are not met.

The best news for Port Angeles might be the increase in state support for the School Construction Assistance Program from $271.61 to $375 per square foot for new construction projects.

The district plans to put a capital bond on the November general election ballot to fund construction of new Port Angeles High and Franklin Elementary schools.

“When you’re talking about a high school, which is about 210,000 square feet, that quickly adds up,” Superintendent Marty Brewer said.

Lawmakers did not advance legislation that would have changed the supermajority requirement needed to pass school bonds, but increasing state funding could be an incentive for voters to approve them, he said.

Included in the Legislature’s funding was an increase for school districts of about $21 per student more for materials, supplies and operating costs (MSOC) retroactive to the start of the 2023-2024 school year and for 2024-2025, said Business and Operations Director Kira Acker. That is money the district will not have to divert from other funding buckets, she said.

Lawmakers also increased the amount of safety net funding districts can apply for to provide high-need students with services that exceed state and federal funding provisions, but they did not address the problem of underfunding special education as a whole, Brewer said.

The Legislature narrowed the funding gap between what the state pays for special education and the actual number of students in a district who receive those services, but it fell short of fully funding special education, which districts around the state — including Port Angeles — have been seeking.

The state caps its support of special education as a percentage of total student enrollment. Starting in 2024-2025, the cap will rise from 15 percent to 16 percent; the Legislature upped the cap from 13.5 percent to 15 percent during its 2023 regular session.

Two consecutive years of increased special education funding is welcome, Brewer said, but it’s insufficient when 20 percent of district students receive special education services.

“It’s progress, but it’s the long overdue progress,” Brewer said. “It’s one of the most vulnerable populations that we have that we don’t receive full funding for. It frustrates me in the name of equity — that we’re supposed to be working at the district level and the state level to really give resources to balance that playing field for all of our kids.”

The number of students who qualify for special education continues to grow, even though the district closed open enrollment a couple of years ago.

Districts are required by state and federal law to provide special education services to students with disabilities. Education assistance can include one-on-one support in classes; interpretive services, such as American Sign Language; speech, occupational and physical therapy; and psychological and counseling services. The district contracts with many of these providers, which is costly.

“Those funds have to come from somewhere because we can’t turn that child away, nor would we,” Brewer said. “We provide the services and the staffing for those students and that’s an important statement.”

Much of the responsibility for working with students with the most severe disabilities falls on paraeducators, who provide everything from one-on-one instruction to hygiene care.

Paraeducators have been bargaining with the district since last summer and working without a contract since Sept. 1. Paraeducators want the same wage increase of 3.7 percent for school employees set by the Legislature that members of the Port Angeles Education Association and the district agreed to in their negotiations.

The state does not dedicate funds to cover wage increases for every district school employee. The increases — which are intended to offset inflation — are not guaranteed and must be negotiated between the district and the individual bargaining units.

The state funds the equivalent of 10 full-time paraeducators in Port Angeles; there are 130 working in the district, most of whom are part time.

Brewer said the district does not have the capacity to meet the PAPEA demand for a wage increase, as well as other requests for an annual step increase on its salary schedule; compensation for training, certification and degrees; compensation for hard-to-fill positions; and longevity that would kick in earlier and with a higher rate of pay.

Legislation that passed this session, which amended the prototypical school staffing model and provided $72 million more for hiring paraeducators, administrative support and other non-teaching employees, hardly made a dent in a staffing shortage that is statewide, Brewer said.

“It ended up increasing the para allocation for our district by about half a para, and it increased our secretary allocation by about a half a position as well,” he said.

The PAPEA has argued that it is within the district’s 2023 budget to afford the $128,210 it would cost to provide its 130 members with just the 3.7 percent wage increase.

Paraeducators earn hourly wages ranging from $21.68 to $28.33. Like teachers, they work 10 months out of the year, but their salaries are paid out over the course of 12 months. The low pay, the PAPEA has said, has forced many of its members to take on second jobs and has made hiring and retention difficult.

Loss of enrollment — the primary fuel of public school revenue — has hit Port Angeles hard. School board President Sarah Methner said during the budgeting process last spring that members made what they believed to be a very conservative estimate of the number of full-time students enrolled for the 2023-2024 school year.

It approved a budget based on 3,365 FTE students, but only 3,324 ended up enrolling. Those 41 fewer students represent $600,343 in revenue the district will not receive.

The district is the process of developing its 2024-2025 budget, but until it has an agreement with paraeducators, as well as Teamsters and coaches who are also without contracts, it is stymied in completing that task.

The next bargaining session between the district and the PAPEA is scheduled for Wednesday. Three additional meetings have been scheduled during spring break, April 1-5, to try to hammer out an agreement and avoid the strike PAPEA members overwhelmingly voted to approve. All negotiations are being mediated by a representative with the Washingston State Public Employment Relations Commission.

The district is planning to send out a letter to parents next week notifying them of next steps should the PAPEA strike and members of the teachers union vote to join them.

“We will continue to stay focused on the issues and the work,” Brewer said. “We’re going to work really hard to try to get a deal done, but it has to be done in a sustainable financial manner.”

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Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached by email at paula.hunt@peninsulanews.us.

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