Mukilteo schools levy is for employee raises | Guest View

By Jami Lund | Feb 05, 2014
Jami Lund

Few realize the single largest expenditure of most local levies is to add to the wages of state-paid employees.

Last fall, for example, the Mukilteo School Board was persuaded by the officials for the teachers union to use the levy to increase wages by 7 percent by 2016. Administrators also have their state-provided compensation supplemented from the levy.

As I researched how levies are used across the state, Mukilteo stands out as one of the districts using the highest portions of the levy for wages. Half of the maintenance and operations levy in Mukilteo is used to enhance the wages of employees.

The state provides a salary averaging $54,105 and benefits worth an additional $10,000 to Mukilteo teachers for providing 180 days service. Administrators receive a slightly higher amount – $61,326 plus benefits – to cover compensation for 210 days.

The difference between this amount and the actual wage is primarily provided by the levy.

According to the agreement between the union and the school board, teacher wages are supplemented by an average of $20,000, increasing to more than $22,500 by 2016.

The board prefers a regressive policy, with top-paid teachers getting a 42.8 percent bump, while starting teachers are offered 38.8 percent. The state provision for health benefits is also subsidized by area property taxpayers.

Although the state provides $10,000 for insurance benefits, the levy provides an additional $978 per employee increasing to $1,116 by 2016.

Other wage enhancements are found in the agreement. If teachers work all 183 days specified by the contract, the levy provides a cash-out for unused personal leave worth $312.

If the professional responsibilities of teachers require a test, the district agrees to pay. If a teacher has a large class, she or he can receive a bonus. Even union work receives a subsidy from the levy.

Student services, however, are a lower priority in Mukilteo.

Although the state pays for 180 service days, Mukilteo’s board sought special permission to shorten the school year by two days. It also added 23 early-release days.

Both are claimed to be necessary to afford employees time for professional responsibilities. However, the levy-funded wage enhancements above are specifically for conferences, in-service work, planning with other staff and other such responsibilities.

If the extra wage for these responsibilities was converted to days work, the 37 percent pay bump would buy 13 weeks of work.

Currently, Mukilteo residents provide $35.6 million for the Mukilteo operations and maintenance levy. The new levy will seek $40.2 million in 2015, $42.2 million in 2016, $43.2 million in 2017, and $44.2 million in 2018.

This is interesting, given that Mukilteo has seen flat or declining enrollment in recent years.

Likewise, the state funding has been increasing again recently. The only increasing burden local voters will face is the cost of higher wages and perks, which will grow to more than $20 million per year by 2016 — remaining at roughly half of the levy cost.

What kinds of services could be bought with $20 million per year? Could summer school be offered to students falling behind? Could the school year be extended rather than shortened? Could the 2,500 English language learners receive more supplemental learning time?

What’s even more alarming is the fact that levy funds are capped at a certain percentage of the district budget. As a growing portion of the levy is committed to employee perks, many districts actually have to start cannibalizing services to fund their union contracts.

This is why districts end up neglecting maintenance, charging parents and cutting back programs.

Worse yet, these growing payroll demands require draining district reserves. In recent years, Mukilteo has been draining ending-fund balances, according to OSPI records from last year.

As an advocate of local control, I respect the right of local citizens to decide the leadership and spending priorities of their schools.

District leaders have the right to spend reserves, trim services and increase levies. They also have the right to tax a community with an average income of $64,000 to give raises to people making $73,000 and even higher percent increases to those making $85,000.

Just be aware that when the levy campaign suggests that the money is needed for children's services, supplies and whatnot, the other half of the money is for wages.

Jami Lund is a senior education policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation, a free-market think and action tank in Olympia. He earned a master's degree in public policy and administration from Western Washington University, and served as an education policy analyst for the state House of Representatives, Republican Caucus from 2005-11. He can be reached at jlund@myfreedomfoundation.org.

Read a rebuttal to this Op-Ed by Mukilteo School District Andy Muntz here.

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