Hawkins proposes bipartisan school district consolidation bill

Citing the high costs per student among small school districts and the opportunity for more efficient use of state and local tax dollars, 12th District Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-East Wenatchee) announced today that he has prefiled Senate Bill 5487, a bipartisan proposal to incentivize school district consolidation.

The ranking Republican on the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee and former school board president is the proposal’s prime sponsor. Hawkins’ committee colleague, Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle), is the bill’s lead bipartisan co-sponsor.

Hawkins stated that the average cost during the 2019-2020 school year in state and local dollars was $13,879 per student. Small school districts in Hawkins’ legislative district, for example, spent as much as $22,125 (Orondo), $26,342 (Mansfield), and $28,745 (Palisades) that year per student.

Hawkins said that smaller districts tend to spend much more per student due largely to their higher central administration, building administration, and facility maintenance costs. He believes it would be more efficient for taxpayers if some of those districts partnered with nearby neighboring districts, spreading central administration and maintenance costs across more students.

“I’ve been encouraging my legislative colleagues to think differently about how we deliver educational services,” Hawkins said. “If we were to reimagine school districts today based on what we spend on education, we wouldn’t draw up 295 different school districts in our state, especially when many of the small school districts are spending much more than the state average per student. It doesn’t make sense for the taxpayers.”

Hawkins bill would provide the new districts with a 10-year boost in their School Construction Assistance Program (SCAP) formula, a state capital budget program that awards matching funds to school districts whose communities approve construction bonds for school renovations. In structuring the bill this way, he said taxpayers could receive long-term benefits in school district operational efficiencies while also assisting districts with their school facility modernizations. This is something small school districts need and something provided for already in the capital budget.

“Legislators are in the ‘carrots-and-sticks’ business, and I’ve always preferred the carrots. We can’t expect things to change unless we come up with creative options. I think a ‘voluntary, incentives-based’ consolidation bill might avoid the controversy of past proposals and prompt some healthy and candid conversations,” Hawkins said.

The prefiled the bill is eligible for consideration in the 2022 legislative session, which begins on Jan. 10.

(Image caption: This bar chart shows a sample of “per student” costs in the 12th District.