(The Center Square) – Amid district budget shortfalls and complaints from some school leaders about a lack of money from Olympia, state funding was a hot topic at an election forum featuring candidates for the office of Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Three out of four candidates attended the League of Women Voters-sponsored event on Monday evening from Ridgeline High School in Liberty Lake, in Spokane County.

In attendance to take questions from six high school student panelists were current Superintendent Chris Reykdal, who is running for a third term; David Olson, who has served on the Peninsula School Board in Gig Harbor for more than a decade; and Reid Saaris, who founded Equal Opportunity Schools in Seattle in 2007 after three years of teaching at a high school in Beaufort, S.C.

A fourth candidate, John Patterson Blair, was unable to attend the forum. Blair served on the Vashon School Board from 2000 to 2004 and has a background that includes a stint as a high school teacher and teachers’ union negotiator.

Olson was the first to address the question of whether state funding of schools is equitable.

“Eight years ago, the superintendent was at an exact forum like this and was talking about the inequities and lack of funding from the state in public education,” Olson said. “Fast-forward eight years, and even after the McCleary decision – which I think was poorly drafted – we are in a financial crisis across the state due to lack of funding.”

The 2012 McCleary decision by the state Supreme Court held that Washington was not properly funding public education.

Olson pointed to some 100 teachers and staffers in the Moses Lake School District being laid off after $11 million in reported accounting errors, the Marysville School District facing possible state oversight if it doesn’t fix major issues with its financial plan by Wednesday, and Seattle Public Schools’ announced plan to close 20 public elementary schools.

“Yet in King County and Spokane County, following the McCleary decision, their property taxes went up by 60%,” Olson said. “What do they have to show for that?”

Saaris, who was born and raised in Bellevue, graduated from Interlake High School and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a master’s in education from Stanford University, took a slightly different tack.

“I think we do need more resources, but we need to make better use of the resources that we have as well, and I think we’ve had consistent failures to do that,” he said. “I would also go back eight years, and we see the achievement gap has widened steadily these past eight years. Student learning has declined steadily these last eight years.”

Last year’s National Assessment of Education Progress report showed that 74% of fourth graders in Washington tested at a basic level for math in the 2022-23 school year. Only 35% showed proficiency in math. The numbers are even lower at the eighth-grade level, with 64% showing only a basic knowledge of math, while just 28% showed proficiency.

Saaris went on to note “we were only one of three states cited for mismanaging the federal pandemic relief dollars in our schools – and so we need to rebuild confidence that we can make great use of the resources we have…”

Last year, state audits of Washington school districts found that 25 districts failed to properly document more than $31 million in federal COVID-19 aid funds.

Reykdal, a former Democratic lawmaker from Olympia first elected to the statewide schools office in 2016 and re-elected in 2020, agreed with his opponents to a point, but also took issue with some of what they said.

“We definitely have a funding shortage still, because we lost $1,000 per kid to inflation,” he said, “and I’ve got a budget proposal that closes that gap completely.”

He credited the Legislature with making strides in terms of improving school funding.

“Our state eight years ago had a 30% dependence on local tax levies to fund schools,” Reykdal said. “It’s down to 17%. This is a legislative action, not anything that anyone up here gets to do, but the Legislature has worked very, very hard on this.”

He then addressed the mismanagement claim brought up by Saaris

“With respect to the comment around mismanagement – no such finding – I want to thank our school districts for the way they spent federal relief dollars,” Reykdal said. “They got the fourth least amount of money in the country. They spent it on the essentials that needed to happen, and the only finding of our state is we didn’t make school districts post the information on their websites fast enough.”

The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 6 primary will move on to the Nov. 5 general election.