YAKIMA, Wash. -- After sometimes bitter contract negotiations earlier this year, administrators and certified employees in all but one Yakima Valley school district have walked away from the bargaining table with agreements.

But in some districts where agreements have been reached, the story isn’t over.

As 2019 draws closer and the local property tax levy cap imposed by the Legislature looms, administrators need to decide on cuts to keep budgets sustainable during the coming years. And because the levy cap affects districts differently, those cuts will be more drastic in some districts than in others.

“The staff we’re going to lose, it will be awful for them and awful for us to send them or their friends down the road,” said Duane Lyons, the superintendent of the Naches Valley School District. “But the real awfulness is that I won’t be able to offer more classes to the kids.”

The Legislature’s cap on local property tax levies goes into effect at the beginning of 2019. It was just one of the moves lawmakers made in response to the McCleary decision, a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that said Washington wasn’t adequately funding K-12 education. In that ruling, the high court found districts were relying too much on local property tax levies and using them to fund things necessary for basic education. As a result, justices said, districts in more affluent areas had an advantage over districts in poorer communities because property owners in wealthy areas can afford to pay more in taxes and are more likely to pass high levies.

In response, legislators raised state property taxes and poured billions of dollars into K-12 education, including staff salaries.

Tense times

As districts began to receive that extra money and brought their teachers and other certified employees to the bargaining table, disputes broke out over how much should go toward salaries. Many local teacher unions objected to initial offers, wondering why their districts weren’t offering double-digit percent pay raises like other districts around the state.

Teachers in the Toppenish, Wapato, Yakima, Selah, Grandview, Union Gap and Naches Valley school districts took to the streets in protest. Certified staff unions in at least three districts — Yakima, Wapato and Naches Valley — voted to strike. And they weren’t alone. In early September, roughly 6,000 teachers from nine districts across the state were on strike over pay raises.

Now, after months of negotiations, administrators in 15 of the 16 school districts in the Valley have reached agreements with their certified staff unions. Only the Union Gap School District has yet to settle. In an email, Josh Butrick, a spokesman for the Union Gap Education Association, sad the union and administrators reached a tentative agreement, but the school board voted not to ratify the contract.

Many districts are still negotiating with their classified staffs, which include bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, paraeducators, and maintenance and food service workers. In October, dozens of classified employees from the Yakima School District crammed into a school board meeting demanding administrators offer them better pay raises. Those negotiations are still ongoing.

District budgets

Administrators say they couldn’t give higher raises to their teachers because a lot of the new money coming from the state had strings attached — essentially, it could only be spent on certain items or programs — and because the levy cap is going to hurt them in the long run. If districts can’t raise as much from levies as they could in the past, then administrators say they need to find ways to continue paying for items funded by levy dollars, meaning many districts couldn’t afford the raises teachers requested.

The levy cap adversely affects districts like Naches Valley and Selah, which both have high levies they use to fund such things as athletics, technology, music, maintenance and security. The Naches Valley School District levy generates $3.48 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Selah’s generates $3.50 per $1,000. Both will drop to $1.50 per $1,000 at the start of the new year, costing both districts millions in revenue.

To prepare for cuts, Lyons — the Naches Valley superintendent — said he’s asked administrators to create lists prioritizing staff positions and items funded by the levy. Lyons said he’s going to present those lists to the school board this month to help decide where adjustments can be made. He estimates the district may need to cut as many as 23 staff positions, including eight teachers, one administrator and 14 classified employees, by February.

“We’ve been able to be competitive with similar-sized school districts budgetwise and staffwise to this point, but now we can’t,” Lyons said. “Because of our ‘reliance on the levy,’ which is one way to put it, and because we’re poor and can’t raise that much for $1.50, we’re being penalized harshly.”

In Selah, Superintendent Shane Backlund said his district is trying to educate the public on how school budgets work so they understand how the budget has been affected. He plans to create a budget advisory committee to offer guidance on how the district can keep its budget sustainable during the next few years.

Backlund said he anticipates some staff cuts going into next year, but said the more immediate reductions will result from attrition — meaning the district will eliminate empty positions rather than laying off employees.

“There will definitely be some difficult discussions and hard decisions and hurt feelings, but it’s kind of the nature of where we’re at,” Backlund said. “I think we’re getting out in front of it and being strategic with it. I don’t want to paint a picture of doom and gloom because we’ve been through enough of that. It’s a new reality, so we’re all working on trying to figure out how to navigate it.”

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