Local school levy lids will stay at 28 percent

By Grace Swanson
WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Educators across the state seem relieved after the Legislature voted to avoid the “levy cliff” on March 9.

The House passed SB 5023 with 87 in support and 10 opposed after the Senate approved the bill with 48 in support and one opposed. The bill will freeze the current levy lid at 28 percent until 2019; the lid was scheduled to drop to 24 percent in 2018.

Next, SB 5023 goes to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. Inslee’s communications associate Simon Vila indicated the governor would sign the bill.

The House passed a levy lid delay bill, HB 1059, in late January. Democratic Senators tried and failed to bring that bill to the Senate floor a few days later.

Lowering the levy lid by 4 percent without alternative sources of funding could result in a “levy cliff,” which may lead to program cuts, teacher dismissals, and students without access to resources.

Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable said the district levies at the 28 percent rate, and has for some time. Dropping to 24 percent would have cost the district about $400,000 in local revenues, which likely would have resulted in laying off six or seven staff members, he said.

Collectively, districts across the state could have lost an estimated $358 million had the extension not been approved.

“Both parties recognized that failure to take action [on the levy lid issue] was potentially catastrophic for districts large and small,” Venable said. He said he had seen estimates that the Seattle School District might have had to lay off more than 400 employees if the levy rate was capped at 24 percent.

“We’re fortunate that the community has supported us at the full amount,” Venable said.

Achieving competitive compensation levels for teachers remains a challenge, Venable said. Many other districts can offer substantially high salaries, he said. “We’re significantly disadvantaged,” Venable said.

Summer Stinson, vice president of Washington’s Paramount Duty, said keeping the levy lid at its current rate will allow districts to plan for next year. The organization is a non-partisan grassroots group of parents and allies working to compel the state to fully fund basic education.

Stinson added that passing SB 5023 should put the focus back on the more imperative education funding challenge faced by the legislature this session.

“It [passing SB 5023] takes the attention and turns it away from the levy cliff, which was a manufactured distraction, and turns it toward the true issue at hand, which is amply and equitably funding basic education for every school in our state,” she said. 

Currently, a majority of school districts can raise 28 percent of their maintenance and operating costs through local taxpayer-approved levies. Levy dollars are intended to fund enrichment costs that fall outside of basic education. Oftentimes, state dollars fall short and districts use these local funds to pay for basic education costs.

The levy lid was raised to 28 percent by the Legislature in 2010 to provide districts with additional funding while the lawmakers grappled with a solution to fully fund education.

Educators now want lawmakers to focus on passing a plan to fully fund basic education. “Now that they’ve taken care of the levy cliff problem, they should focus on amply funding basic education that the McCleary decision and the constitution require,” said Washington Education Association (WEA) spokesman Rich Wood. WEA is the state’s largest union for public school employees.

Fully funding education has been determined to be Washington state’s “paramount duty,” making basic education the state’s first financial priority.

In 2012, the Washington Supreme Court found the state wasn’t sufficiently funding basic education and the Legislature has wrestled to find a solution ever since. Unsatisfied with the Legislature’s progress in 2015, the Washington Supreme Court imposed a $100,000 fine per day, which so far totals over $57 million. The Legislature must fully implement a basic education funding plan by Sept. 1, 2018.

Education funding proposals have been put forward by the House Democrats, Senate Republicans, Gov. Inslee, and a few Democrat senators to fully fund basic education.

The Senate Republican plan (SB 5607) was passed by the Senate in February and is currently in the House Committee on Appropriations. Meanwhile, the House Democrats’ proposal (HB 1843) was passed by the House in February and was referred to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

On Jan. 12, Gov. Inslee’s plan (HB 1067) was given a public hearing in the House Committee on Appropriations. There was a public hearing on the plan proposed by three Democratic Senators (SB 5825) in the Senate Committee on Ways and Means on Feb. 27.

(This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.)