Follow the Money... See where your tax dollars are really going!
The history of school construction and repair funding in Washington State during the past 20 years mirrors the history of school operation funding in that there has been a steady decline in State funding for school construction. Whereas our State legislature has historically provided more than 60% of the actual construction costs of public schools in the 1980’s, State funding has fallen to as low as 10% of actual costs during the past 10 years.
This decline in State Matching funds has resulted in a transfer of this funding obligation from the State to local property owners via an increasing dependence on local school construction bonds.
Like with operating costs, the State’s failure to help fund school construction has led to a dramatic increase in local school bond and levy costs which in turn have led to a rapid rise in local property taxes. This increase has been particularly harmful to those who are retired and/or living in a fixed income. At the same time, during the past 12 years, the legislature has granted billions of dollars in tax breaks to millionaires and major corporations, essentially transferring the tax burden for school construction and repair away from the rich and onto the backs of middle class homeowners. This unfair tax burden increase on middle class homeowners is as high as $1,000 additional dollars per year on a $500,000 home in King County.
The Underlying Problem: Out of Control Tax Breaks for Wealthy Corporations
At the same time the State legislature cut billions of dollars in school operation and construction funding, the legislature also granted billions of dollars in tax breaks to wealthy multinational corporations.
Tax breaks for billionaires and major corporations in our State have skyrocketed 250% during the past 10 years (from $20 billion per year in 1998 to $50 billion by 2008). Over 90% of these tax exemptions benefit the richest one percent, with much of this wealth being shipped out of State and even out of the country, creating jobs overseas instead of here in Washington State.
In shifting the tax burden to our middle class, and causing the firing of thousands of public servants, these massive tax exemptions for billionaires do not create jobs. Instead, they cost jobs. We now spend $8 on corporate tax breaks for every dollar we spend on teachers.
If we cut back on corporate tax breaks for the rich by even 10%, we could be hiring teachers and doctors and health care workers instead of firing them.
The combination of reducing State support for public schools while increasing tax breaks for the rich transferred the tax burden for school construction and repair away from the rich and onto the backs of middle class homeowners. Today, for every dollar the State legislature invests in our schools, it diverts $7 on tax breaks for billionaires and major corporations.
According to the 2008 OSPI School Construction Transparency Study (pg 14):
“Local contributions have increasingly funded the majority of actual expenditures for K12 capital projects during the 15 year period analyzed. The State’s contribution towards capital projects has decreased from 24.7% in FY 1992-93 to 14.5% in FY 2006-07. “
Going even further back, the State historically funded more than 60% of actual school construction costs. To transfer this tax burden to local homeowners without the voters noticing, beginning in the 1980’s and continuing to the present day, the legislature has used a series of math tricks to evade their Constitutional obligation to help build and operate public schools.
As a direct result of the State’s failure to assist local communities with school construction and repair, there has been nearly $15 billion dollars in school construction bond failures in the past 14 years. This is an average of over one billion dollars a year in bond failures.
Put another way, the school construction and repair backlog has been growing at more than one billion dollars per year for every year this problem has been ignored by our legislature. Thus, a “best guess” estimate of total school construction and repair backlog is about $20 billion dollars.
As a direct result of the State failure to adequately assist local school districts in building schools, there are now over 100,000 “un-housed” students in our State going to school in poorly ventilated particle board boxes. This is 10% or one out of every ten students in our State. It will take building about 200 schools each housing 500 students each to correct this deficiency. At an average cost of $30 million dollars per school, it will take more than $6 billion dollars to correct this problem. If the State’s share is 50%, the State will have to fund more than $3 billion additional dollars just to correct this school construction backlog. This does not include the back log in school repairs which would bring the total backlog up to at least $20 billion dollars (with a State share of $10 billion).
Seven Math Tricks Used By the Legislature to Transfer the Tax Burden for School Construction to Local Homeowners
Beginning in the late 1980’s, the legislature has used a series of math tricks to evade their Constitutional obligation to help build and operate public schools. There are more than a dozen math tricks used by the Legislature to shift the tax burden onto local homeowners.
The seven biggest math tricks are:
We will examine each of these math tricks to document the history of how our school construction backlog was created by the State’s failure to help pay for school construction during the past 20 years.
MATH TRICK #1: USING ELIGIBLE COSTS RATHER THAN ACTUAL COSTS
Beginning in the late 1980’s, the Legislature began using a formula to limit its contribution to school construction. By manipulating this formula, the State gradually reduced its share of total school construction costs from over 60% to less than 15%.
Thus, while State funding for “eligible costs” dropped from 61% in 1985 to 32% in 2007, State funding for actual school construction costs fell from 60% to about 15%. Meanwhile local funding has more than doubled from 40% to about 85%. .
In the 1980’s eligible funds represented over 90% of actual costs. By 2007, eligible funds covered less than 40% of actual costs. This drop was due to deliberate under-estimation of many essential components of school construction.
MATH TRICK #2: USING AN ARTIFICIALLY LOW AREA COST ALLOWANCE (ACA)
The Washington State School Construction Funding Formula consists primarily of three factors to determine “eligible costs.” These are the “Eligible” Area to determine the eligible square footage multiplied by the AREA COST ALLOWANCE to estimate the “Eligible cost per square foot” of building a new school multiplied by the State “match percentage.”
Eligible Cost = Eligible Area (Student Space Allocation) X Area Cost Allowance (Construction Cost Allocation) X State Match Percent
Each of these three factors has been significantly under-estimated in order to reduce the State’s Contribution. Math Tricks associated with the ACA will be discussed next.
Inaccurate Area Cost Allowance (ACA)
Prior to 1986, the eligible total cost was very close to the actual total cost because actual construction costs were used to set the Area Cost Allowance (ACA) used in the State School Construction funding formula. However, since 1986, the State legislature failed to raise the ACA to match the rate of increase in construction costs. For example, the current 2009 Area Cost allowance of $169/SF is estimated to be about 68% of recent typical school actual construction costs ($260/SF). School construction costs are even greater in some counties (especially King County). (See 2008 OSPI Transparency Study, page 66 and 2009 OPSI Analysis of the School Construction Assistance Program Formula Allocations, page 1).
In addition, it is known that High Schools cost far more per square foot than Middle Schools and Elementary Schools. For example, a 2008 study of actual school costs in the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon and Idaho) showed costs for elementary and middle schools were $180 to $190 per square foot while the median cost for high schools in the Pacific Northwest was $277 per square foot (School Planning and Management 2008 Annual School Construction Report, February 2008, Region 12, page 14), www.webSPM.com). The difference between the ACA and the actual cost of a high school is over $100 per square foot meaning the actual cost of a real high school will be almost TWICE the “allowed” cost.
The obvious solution to this problem is to change the state standard for construction cost per square foot to reflect actual construction costs, including local variations in construction costs. However, this would require the Legislature to provide the funds to pay for the State’s fair share of school construction. This single change would increase State funding for school construction by more than 40%.
OPSI Recommendation: Increase the Construction Cost Allocation to be based on the true costs of construction based on a 3 year rolling average of actual construction cost bid data. The 2009 OSPI school construction report recommends “increasing the allocation according to the 3 year rolling average of actual school construction bid data.” This would result in an increase from $169 per SF to $260 per SF.
MATH TRICK #3: Under estimating the Student Space Allocation (Eligible Area or square footage per student)
The State Legislature also under-estimates the amount of space required for each student in order to artificially further lower their contribution to school construction.
For example, the 2007 median square footage per high school built in the Pacific Northwest was 180 Square Feet per student. But the Washington State “eligible” square footage” was only 130 square feet per student. (See chart below).
Although the studies referenced above did not explain why the size of new high schools has recently risen from 160 SF per student to 180 SF per student during the past 10 years, it is likely due to the increasing use of high tech “computer labs”, science labs and other new learning spaces demanded by employers in the modern high tech world as well as increased course load requirements (CORE 24) required for success in modern universities. Note that there was very little change in the SF allotments for middle schools and elementary schools during the past ten years. Therefore whatever is driving the increase in size is related to increased expectations placed on modern high schools and modern high school students.
Recommendation: The solution to this problem is to raise Eligible Area to the NW 2007 Median Areas of 109 Sf for K-6, 143 Sf for 7-8 and 180 SF for 9-12. This single change would increase State funding for school construction by more than 30%.
OPSI Recommendation: Increase the allowable square footage per student based on actual educational needs.
MATH TRICK #4: Using a complex and deceptive State “match” formula to further reduce the State contribution to school construction
In addition to the artificially low Area Cost Allowance and the artificially low per student SF allotment, the State also has a very complex and deceptive “matching” formula. The claimed purpose of this formula is to fund poorer school districts at a higher rate than richer school districts (rich school districts defined as school districts with high property values per student). Using the State formula, the Snoqualmie Valley School District qualifies for a “44% match” of eligible costs. Thus, if a new and urgently needed high school costs 100 million dollars and the State match is 44%, a reasonable assumption would be that the State would pay $44 million. But in fact, the true State match was only $3 million or 3% of the actual cost of the new high school. This is even lower than the State wide average of 14% of actual costs which the State paid for in 2007. In fact, as the following chart shows, this was the lowest percent the State has ever been willing to pay to help a local community build an urgently needed high school.
There have been 20 new high schools built in our State in the past 10 years – about 2 new high schools every year. The above chart shows that while some school districts received up to 58% in State matching funds, the Snoqualmie Valley School District was only offered 3%.
As a consequence of the State’s failure to provide “matching funds” for building schools, our school district is forced to propose bond issues which ask home owners to pay higher taxes even though they already pay more than their fair share. Because the bond measure was twice as high as it would have been had the State matched half of the actual cost, the bond went down to defeat three times in a row.
It is not fair that the district with the most growth and thus the most need for a new High School receives the least financial support from the State. In short, our school funding structure is grossly unfair to homeowners and students in the Snoqualmie Valley School district. At no point in our State’s history has a local school district been so abandoned by the State of Washington. Never in the history of our State has a local school district been asked to pay 97% of the cost of building a High School. This crisis is real and the stakes could not be higher. Our children are counting on us to solve this problem. It is time for our school board to demand that the State legislature pay their fair share of building an urgently needed high school.
Math Trick #5: Ignoring Regional Cost Differences
One of the biggest factors ignored by the State formula is regional construction cost differences. For example, the cost of living (and the cost of construction) is about 20% higher in King County than in Spokane County. But the State formula assumes that regional costs are the same -- making it much more difficult for King County communities to build a school than in lesser expensive communities. In some parts of King County, such as Bellevue, this failure is overcome by extremely high commercial property valuations per student (which permits a school district to raise a lot of money without having a high levy rate). However, because the Snoqualmie Valley School District is a bedroom community, we have two strikes against us. We have a high cost of living, but low commercial property valuations per child. The result is a huge and unfair tax burden on local homeowners.
Math Trick #6: Ignoring Actual # of Un-housed Student to create Phantom Students
But it gets even worse because the unrealistically low “per student Square Foot allotment” is not only applied to the new schools needed by growing school districts, but also to existing schools! This application is particularly punishing to growing school districts.
The following shows the problem with the current formula:
The problem is with the above formula is that instead of using the number of actual students, it divides the number of actual students by a 30 year old square footage standard which has the effect of reducing the estimate of the number of students. This in turn makes the school appear to be less crowded than it really is and greatly reduces the State’s contribution to school construction. The more newer schools in the district (schools with more square footage than allowed by the 30 year old formula), the less likely it is that they will qualify for State matching funds.
How the Eligible Area Method hides over-crowding in growing school districts
Assume your school district already has a High School that was designed for 1,000 students built 20 years ago to the Pacific NW SF standard at the time which was 160 SF per student. Using the Pacific NW average High School standard at the time of 160 Square feet per student, the actual size of the existing High School is 160 SF X 1000 students = 160,000 Square Feet. But applying the State “eligibility” estimate of 130 SF to your existing high school means the State incorrectly assumes you can fit 160,000/130 SF per student = 1,230 students in your existing high school. Thus, using a 30 year old SF standard gives the school room for an extra 230 phantom students.
Let’s further assume your existing high school will have 2,000 students in 5 years. The State assumes it will only be over-crowded by 2,000 minus 1,230 = 770 students using the 1980 SF standard. In fact it is over crowded by 1,000 students using the 1990’s 160 SF standard and it is over crowded by 1,200 students using the 2007 180 SF per student standard.
In summary, there are twice the number of un-housed students using the 180 SF standard as there are using the 130 SF standard because, under the current State formula you have to factor in the under-estimation for every student in the entire existing school. This greatly magnifies the SF error.
These artificially low allocations eliminate many Districts from eligibility for state match because there appears to be room for hundreds of phantom students according to the state standard even though the school may be over-crowded by hundreds of students.
Math Trick #7: Ignoring the cost of purchasing and developing the land
Many years ago, ignoring the cost of land was okay for two reasons. First, many school districts already owned large sections of land. The legislature wanted to force school districts to use the land they already owned rather than buying more. Second, land use to be relatively cheap compared to the cost of building the school. Today, and especially in King County, land has gotten very expensive. There has also been a huge increase in the cost of developing the land. Thus, land may be 20% of total cost and development may be another 10%. Ignoring these two essential costs artificially lowers State matching funds by 30%.
Other hidden factors: Ignoring Many Other Actual Costs of Building a New School
The current formula ignores the cost of other essential components of a high school such as a track and gymnasium for sports and assemblies and even ignores the need for a front office or halls to connect class rooms! The State formula also ignores the cost of the additional staff needed to start the new school. Ignoring all of these additional essential costs has the effect of cutting the eligible percent by as much as 50%.
The 2008 Snoqualmie Valley Proposed High School Bond as A REAL EXAMPLE of How the State formula transfers the tax burden to local communities:
In 2008, the Snoqualmie Valley School Board responded to anticipated over-crowding of Mount Si High School by proposing to build a second high school to house 1,200 students. The current high school had a capacity of 1,200 students and within a few years, our school district will have 2,400 high school students. So the second high school would be filled to the maximum shortly after it was built.
The size of the second high school was 1,200 students times 180 SF per student (the modern average) = 216 K SF. The cost of the high school (excluding land and development) was 216 K SF times $270 per SF = $58.3 M. But because it is in King County, the actual cost per SF is 20% higher (or $330 per SF) = $71.3 Million.
The land needed was estimated to be 50 acres (average for a modern high school). The cost for 50 acres in East King County was estimated to be $20 million. The cost of development was another $8 million – for a total actual cost of $100 million. Historically, in Washington State, the State Match was at least 50% meaning the local community would only have to pay $50 million. But the actual match was only $3 million or 3%.
We will now use the 7 math tricks described above to see how the State formula can turn $50 million dollar State match into a $3 million dollar State match (thus doubling the local property tax burden for growing school districts or a 100% increase in school construction related local property taxes).
The Snoqualmie Valley School District is one of the most rapidly growing school districts in our State. We currently have 6,000 students but only one high school which was built to support 1,200 students (excluding portables and using the current NW average square footage for high schools). We currently have about 1,600 students at our high school (400 over capacity). But at our elementary schools, we have many more students. This means that, even if the growth rate slows down to 3%, within the next 8 years we will have more than 2,400 students at a high school build for half that amount. By the time our First Graders are in high school, the enrollment will reach 2,400 students more than 1,200 students over maximum capacity.
The obvious solution to this problem is to build a new high school for 1,200 students. Since it takes 4 years to build a high school, the new high school will be at maximum capacity the day it opens even if we started building the school in the next couple of years.
In 2008, recognizing this need, our community attempted to pass a Bond proposal to build this new high school. The estimated cost was $72 million plus another $28 million for the land and development. The bond got 59% of the vote, but failed by just a few hundred votes because a 60% “super-majority” is required to pass a school bond in our State.
One of the most common reasons given for voting “no” was that the State was only willing to pay 3% of the total actual cost (or $3 million of the $100 million). Voters felt they were being blackmailed by the State and they were right. In the 1980’s, the State would have paid 50% or $50 million of the cost of this high school. In only paying $3 million, the State was transferring $47 million additional dollars onto the backs of local homeowners.
Put another way, the State was increasing the local tax burden from $50 million to $97 million. Here is how the State magically turned a $50 million dollar State match into a $3 million dollar State match:
Assume you need to build a high school for 1,200 students in King County. The actual SF will be 180 SF per student times 1,200 students equals 216,000 SF. The actual cost will be about $270 per SF times 216,000 SF equals $58 million if the high school were build in Spokane. However, construction costs in King County are 20% higher than the State average which raises the cost to $72 million. The land and development costs are another $28 million bringing the total cost to $100 million.
But the formula created by the Washington State legislature first begins by creating phantom students. The existing high school is at about 216,000 SF. Divided by 180 SF per student (the modern average), its capacity is 1,200 students. But the legislature uses a 30 year old standard of 130 SF per student to determine the capacity of the existing high school. 216 K/130 = 1,662 students. The formula creates room for 462 phantom students. The legislature also imposes a 5 year time limit on the growth calculation. Thus, if there will be 2,100 high school students 5 years from now and 2,400 students in 8 years from now, the legislature assumes that the number of “un-housed” students is 2100 – 1662 = 438 when it will really be 2400-1200 = 1200 students.
Thus the real number of un-housed students is three times larger than the “allotted” number of students. 300 were lost due to the 5 year limitation and 462 were lost due to phantom students – or real students that the State legislature pretends do not exist so they can evade their responsibility to help build urgently needed schools.
The legislature then only allocates 130 SF per allotted HS student meaning the High School “eligible costs” will only be 438 students times 130 SF equals 57,000 SF. (versus the actual 216,000 SF). The 57,000 SF is then only multiplied by $169 per SF (instead of $320 SF actual cost) to get only $9.6 million in “eligible costs (versus $100 million in actual costs).
Then the State ignores many of the actual costs cutting the eligible cost down to $7 million. Next, the State only matches 44% of this $7 million in “eligible” cost bringing the total down to $3 million of actual State Matching funds.
Thus, the quadruple wammy of under-estimating the number of un-housed students, under-estimating the space needed per student, under-estimating the cost per foot, and ignoring actual regional and land costs of construction results in an actual cost of $100 million for the 1,200 student high school being reduced to “eligible costs” of only $3 million.
Nor is this problem limited to our High School. We recently built a new middle school and a new elementary school without any help from the State matching fund. There were no matching funds because the number of phantom students exceeded the number of real un-housed students!
Phantom Students lead to Portable Classrooms
The State Match Formula is unfair to nearly all growing school districts… forcing tens of thousands of school children to spend their school days in poorly ventilated particle board boxes
Nor is the Snoqualmie Valley school district alone in being abandoned by the State legislature. Growing School Districts from Evergreen near Vancouver, to Puyallup and Federal Way to Kent to Snohomish and Maple Valley (Tahoma) have been subjected to similar problems. While the State un-housed students currently stand at 10% or 100,000 un-housed students, in many growing school districts, the rate is over 20%. The following chart is just one example taken from the Tahoma School District which is just south of the Snoqualmie Valley School District and suffers from very similar problems.
In 2008, the State Auditor issued a study of 10 school districts. The study found that 10% of all the classrooms in these 10 districts were portable classrooms. Some school districts were above 20%. This is way above the national average. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national average rate for portables is 6%.
Put another way, of the one million school children in our State, about 100,000 are attending school in particle board boxes with known health and safety risks and at a much higher long-term cost to State tax payers than if they were housed in real permanent school buildings.
The problem with putting 100,000 kids in particle board boxes is not merely that they are the wrong shape and were never designed for group learning. More important, these buildings suffer from inadequate ventilation and present health problems to students and teachers (as is discussed more below). In addition, portable buildings have long term costs which are twice as high as simply building real schools. So we are harming both school children and tax payers by housing children in temporary portables instead of providing them with real schools. Thus, portable buildings should never be viewed as anything more than an emergency temporary solution.
Determining the long term cost of portable classrooms
compared to building and operating permanent school buildings
In 2005, the voters of Washington State passed Initiative 900 authorizing the State Auditor’s Office to conduct performance audits of state agencies. The purpose of these audits was to promote “cost effective use of public resources” and identify significant areas of cost savings. As public schools account for 42% of State spending, analysis of school spending was one of the highest priorities. The State Auditor therefore conducted an in-depth audit of the 10 largest school districts in our State in 2007 and issued a Performance Audit Report on September 30, 2008. (http://www.sao.wa.gov/AuditReports/AuditReportFiles/ar1000013.pdf).
Over the long run, portables are a waste of tax payer dollars. The State Auditor noted that this was a complex topic. Nevertheless, they attempted to estimate the annualized costs of portables versus new construction. This was their estimate:
State Auditor Estimate of Portable Classroom Operating Costs
Thus, the Auditor concluded that while the initial cost of portables is about 50% less than permanent school buildings, the long term cost is about 52% greater. This based in part on the assumption that permanent schools last about twice as long as portables and have much lower heating and operating costs. Some studies have found that permanent schools last 3 times longer than portables. Under this assumption, long term costs of portables could be twice the long term cost of permanent school buildings or about $10,000 more per year per classroom. Also the 2008 Auditor’s report did not take into account any of the hidden costs of portable classrooms such as lost teacher and student productivity due to illness or lower learning rates due to excess noise. If all of these hidden costs were taken into account, the true cost of portables is likely to be many times the cost of real schools.
How much would State tax payers save in the long run by replacing all of our portable classrooms with real schools?
Using the conservative estimate in the 2008 State Auditor’s report. each portable classroom costs State tax payers at least $6,763 per year more than a real classroom. Since there are about 5,000 portable classrooms in our State, the total annual cost is at least $30 million dollars per year. Adding in all the hidden costs and using a more realistic ratio for the life of a portable compared to a real school brings the cost up to $100 million dollars per year. Multiple this times the 40 year life of a real school brings the long term tax payer cost up to $4 billion dollars. It is simply not a wise policy to waste tax payer dollars on portables instead of building real schools. It is harmful to children, teachers and tax payers.
How can we fix this problem?
The Auditor’s report specifically faults “State construction funding processes and rules” for creating this problem. The report concludes that “changes in construction funding in Washington State could help such districts better manage their facilities inventories.” The Auditor’s report recommended that the State Legislature address several problems in State law which have forced growing school districts into the excess use of portables:
1. Grossly unfair school construction funding tax structure. Because assessed property valuations vary significantly across Washington, some school districts (with lower property valuations per student) are at a “gross income disadvantage” compared to other school districts. In particular, rich school districts such as Bellevue and Mercer Island are able to have much better school funding and much lower taxing rates due to their high property valuations. Solutions to this problem include more equitable levy equalization or the formation of regional or State wide school taxing districts.
2. Inadequate State school construction matching funds. State matching funds are now so low that they have not been viable for more than a decade. While Washington State used to match more than 50% of local funds to build schools, the State currently matches less than 15% of the actual cost of school construction. In some communities, such as the Snoqualmie School District, the State match is lower than 3% of actual costs. (note that the national average is about 50% State match of actual costs).
Given these recommendations by our State Auditor and given the huge long terms costs that current State policies are inflicting on State tax payers and on the health of children, our State legislature should make addressing this problem one of its highest priorities.
What is really needed is real schools with real classrooms. This requires real funding from the State. The consultants who wrote the most recent report on school construction stated: “Both the area cost allowance (ACA) and the allowable square footage per student are now held artificially low, in order to cap the State’s contribution. The fact that allowances are set at artificially low and unrealistically low levels is a major contributor to the transparency problem.”
The authors of the report recommended that the State Legislature “increase the ACA to be based on the true costs of construction, and that the allowable square footage per student be based on actual educational needs (emphasis added). “ Source: Berk and Associates (2008) K12 School Construction Funding Transparency Study, October 1, 2008, p 6).
In short, the solution to the school construction problem requires using the actual cost of school construction and the actual needs of the school students. Of course, this would require actual funding from the State legislature.
We should also insure the health and safety of existing public schools
2003 to 2011: Public School Building Health: A Hidden Crisis
Nearly all buildings are subject to building codes which are regulations intended to insure the safety of occupants. Building codes are revised about every three years. The only buildings exempt from these rules are public schools. In order to keep the construction and repair cost of school buildings down, safety codes for public schools have not been revised in nearly 40 years (since 1971). This means that the buildings school children are required to spend their days in are the least safe buildings in our State.
Three main areas of concern include: Air quality and ventilation, Water quality, and Protection from pathogens such as mold and mildew. Responding to concerns and complaints from parents and teachers, there have been several attempts to address this problem, both legislatively and from the Washington State Department of Health.
In 2005, Representatives Chase, Kenney, Santos and Hasagawa introduced House Bill 2177 requiring the testing of toxic mold in schools. The bill never even got a hearing.
Also in 2005, Senators Jacobsen, Rockefeller, Kohl-Wells, Kline, Franklin and Edie
Introduced Senate Bill 5029 which would requiring Safe Drinking Water in Schools There was also a companion bill in the House (HB 1123) on Safe Drinking water in schools sponsored by Representatives Kenney, Dickerson, McIntire, Morrell, Santos, Cody, Upthegrove, Hasegawa, Moeller, Kagi, Ormsby, Chase, Williams, O'Brien, Green, Sullivan, Sells, Wallace, and McDermott. This bill was never brought up for a vote.
Recognizing the lack of support for improving school building safety in the legislature, proponents have also tried to get these safety issues addressed administratively through the Washington State Board of Health by updating the School environmental health (EH) rule, chapter 246-366 WAC (CR 102). Several hearings on the proposed rule update have been held during the past 6 years generally with parents and teachers asking for better air and water quality monitoring while legislators are generally opposed due to concerns about the cost of making schools healthier. These hearings were held by the Board of Health’s Environmental Health (EH) Committee.
During public hearings in 2008, one parent described their child coming home with extreme fatigue, vocabulary loss, headache, bellyaches, and dizziness. Drinking water in her classroom was later found to contain elevated levels of lead. Another parent said her son would complain of terrible stomach pains before dinner every night. She later found out his school had high concentrations of copper in its drinking water.
One parent asked: “I know it will cost money to have safe drinking water in our schools. But how much is a child’s life worth?”
Lead exposure in childhood is known to result in reduced brain size, increased aggression, and a greater likelihood of criminality as a teen and adult. The Department of Health estimates that 30% of schools in Washington have drinking water levels that exceed 20 PPBB for lead. It has been estimated that improving indoor air quality would reduce asthma rates by 20% saving our State more than $2 billion a year in health costs as well as greatly improve academic performance. The cost of implementing these safety reforms has been estimated to be about $12 per students.. less in school districts already in compliance.
In April, 2009, House Bill 2334 was offered by Representatives Dunshee, Williams, Hunt, Ormsby, White, Conway, Hudgins and Chase which would provide $3 billion in school construction and repair bonds. A portion of these funds were intended to cure health problems in our public schools.
Those who voted against House Bill 2334 (in committee) included Representatives Warnick, Pearson, Anderson, Hope, McCune and Smith. The Bill eventually died in the Rules Committee and was never brought up for a full vote in the House of Representatives. It is amazing that anyone could vote against a bill essential for protecting the health and safety of school children.
On June 10, 2009, in their latest summary letter, the EH Committee stated that despite making numerous compromises to reduce the cost, the 2009 legislature included a clause in the final 2009-11 operating budget, passed April 2009 as ESHB 12444, in Section 222 prohibiting the Department of Health and the State Board of Health from implementing any new or amended school facility rules without approval of the legislature.
It is known that due to the failure to maintain our public schools, many schools suffer from extreme toxic problems that may cause health problems in sensitive children. Given the rapid rise in asthma, allergies, leukemia, and other severe childhood health concerns, the failure to permit the revision of school health standards, essentially raising them up to the standards already existing for other buildings, is very troubling.
A proposed solution to our school construction and repair crisis
A 2008 survey of States indicated that the national average for State funding of school construction is about 50 percent of actual construction costs. According to the 2008 OSPI Transparency Study, Arizona funds 100% of actual school construction needs. North Carolina funds 75% of actual school construction needs, California funds 50% of actual school construction needs, and New Jersey pays 40 to 100 % of actual costs. The National Average of all States is about 50% of actual costs.
If our State adopted a “National Average” school construction standard, we would raise State school construction funding from the current 15% of actual costs to the national average of 50% of actual costs. It would cut local funding from the current 85% to about 50%. This would greatly increase the likelihood of passing local school construction bonds which would likely lead to a doubling of school construction bond passage and school construction. This would triple school construction State funding to about $2 billion dollars per year until the existing backlog has been corrected.
In order to solve this problem as quickly as possible, we propose a “Put Washington Back To Work” $10 Billion dollar school repair and construction Bond be submitted to the voters. This proposal would be similar to 2009 House Bill 2334, but about 10 times larger. This proposal would provide over 100,000 jobs in nearly every community in our State to address the school construction and repair back log. The State would commit to paying for 100% of any school related repairs needed to bring school safety and health standards up to modern building code standards as recommended by the Washington Board of Health.
In addition, the State would match 50% of actual construction costs of any new construction (the National Average School Construction standard). This will insure that local communities will be able to build needed schools without bankrupting local homeowners. For example, in the Snoqualmie Valley School District, we urgently need a new high school to accommodate over 1,000 additional students who are already attending our elementary schools and are highly likely to need a high school in the next five years. This new high school is estimated to cost $100 million dollars. The State match under the current formula is only 3 million dollars leading to a School Construction local bond estimate of $97 million dollars. This school construction bond has failed three times in the past two years. If the State match were raised to 50% of actual costs, the State would pay $50 million and local homeowners would only need to pay $50 million. It is much more likely we could pass a $50 million dollar bond than a $97 million dollar bond.
How much will this proposal cost?
As noted above, the State’s share of the current school construction back log is about $10 billion dollars. Over a 5 year build out time frame, this amounts to an additional $2 billion dollars a year. It has been estimated that nearly all of these funds would remain in the community where the school is being built, greatly boosting the local economy of communities throughout our State.
How much will it cost to not build schools?
In the short run, the State may save money by not building schools. But in the long run, the State will pay far more than it saves. When we send our kids to over-crowded schools, we greatly increase the chances of a child winding up in prison. So we can either invest in building schools now, or invest in building prisons later.
It will take 5 years to build a new high school. But the time it is built, the current high school will be so over-crowded that students will be “double shifting” with half starting school as soon as 6 am and half not finishing school until after 6 pm. The certainty of over-crowding and the prospect of double shifting has caused many families to sell their homes and move out of the School District. We are therefore sacrificing the well being of entire communities when we fail to help them build needed public schools.
Where will the money come from?
According to Tax Exemption Reports from the Washington State Department of Revenue, our State currently gives away about $50 billion per year in corporate tax breaks. Tax give aways to millionaires and major corporations has increased dramatically from 2000 to 2010 going from $20 billion per year in 2000 to $50 billion a year in 2010. This is an increase of $3 billion a year.
In the past ten years, tax breaks for millionaires have skyrocketed 250% (see chart). Tax breaks in the past ten years have increased at a rate which is 5 times greater than the increase in the State budget.
Meanwhile, public school operating costs as a percent of income has fallen by a billion a year and school construction as a percent of need has fallen by more than one billion dollars per year. If we rolled back even 10% of these $50 billion in tax breaks, we could restore school construction and school operating costs to the national average without any increase in the State sales or property tax.
By contrast, the rapid rise in corporate tax breaks and the failure to charge the super wealthy their fair share of State taxes has crippled our public school system. If we had national average State taxes, we could have national average school funding for both operating, repair and construction costs.
What is the Constitutional requirement on the State Legislature?
Article 9 of our State Constitution states that providing for the education of our children is the “paramount duty” of the State legislature. This duty includes not only operating public schools, but also building and repairing them.
For the past 20 years, our State legislature has systematically evaded its public duty to build and repair schools. Over time, the problem only got worse. School districts were faced with the draconian choice of paying for schools without help from the State (resulting in homeowners in some school districts paying property taxes at rates of over $4 per thousand of assessed valuation while homeowners a block away were only paying $2 per thousand) or not having urgently needed schools. We are now to the point where further failures to build urgently needed schools is placing the future of an entire generation of school children at risk
In short, the solution to the school construction problem requires using the actual cost of school construction and the actual needs of the school students. Of course, this would require actual funding from the State legislature which is why the Legislature should pass the “Put Washington Back to Work” referendum. This bill is needed not only to put 100,000 people to work (rather than on unemployment). More important, it is needed as a first step to address the unconstitutional and irresponsible backlog in school construction and repair needs currently existing in nearly every school district in our State.
David Spring M. Ed.
Executive Director, Fair School Funding Coalition