By Tom Venable
Soon, the Washington state Legislature will return to work on the biennium budget. Some members of the Legislature seem optimistic they’ll be able to complete their work on time during what is commonly referred to as a “short session.” Public comments from a number of legislators suggest they believe much of their work, focused on complying with the McCleary court order to fully fund a free and appropriate basic education, was completed last summer.
However, most educational leaders throughout the state would suggest otherwise. Superintendents and business managers have been listening to the claims made by the Legislature and looking at the actual numbers. And for many school districts like the Methow Valley, the numbers don’t seem to add up.
Unfortunately, it appears that our schools and the students we serve have been placed at risk, threatened by our own Legislature’s inability to set aside politics and work collaboratively across the aisle, and by continued failure to fully fund the true cost of education in this state.
The Legislature appropriated $7.3 billion over the next four years in support of public education, and legislators were quick to claim they had achieved full compliance with the court’s order by increasing the state’s funding of public education through a “non-voter approved” State Schools Tax of approximately 81 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
But in the absence of any “fixes” made to the budget during the upcoming legislative session, a number of districts across the state could be faced with making cuts to staffing and educational programs.
Superintendents and school district business managers across the state have spent the last few months speaking with their local representatives and meeting with local, regional and state budget analysts in an effort to untangle and make sense of what one legislator apologetically described as “… a complete mess.”
Loss of local dollars
Districts are scheduled to receive an increase in per-pupil funding from the state. However, in our case, the increases in state funding are offset by the loss of voter-approved, local levy dollars.
Some estimates suggest the $7.3 billion in non-voter approved funding from the state is offset by as much as a $3 billion to $5 billion loss in local levy revenues over the next four years. This is what has been called the “levy swap.”
In an effort to suggest the Legislature is fully funding education, the maintenance and operations (M&O) levy was renamed to what is now being referred to as an “enrichment” levy.
The enrichment levy will continue to cover the gap between what the state funds and the true costs, including expenditures such as educational programs, staffing, lower class sizes, athletics, and enriching activities that align with the values deeply held within our community.
Currently, nearly every one of the 295 districts across the state are dependent upon the generous support of their communities and the successful passage of their local levies. Failing to pass an enrichment levy would be catastrophic. In the Methow Valley, it would result in larger class sizes and significant cuts to programs and staffing.
Unlike the M&O levy, which was calculated as a percentage of a district’s operating budget, the enrichment levy formula has been set at $2,500 per pupil or $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value, whichever is less.
In the absence of “fixes” made by the Legislature, our school district, which possesses a relatively high assessed property valuation, resulting in one of the lowest combined school tax rates in the state, and an M&O rate that is less than $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value, we will be capped at $2,500 per pupil. As a result, beginning in January 2019, we will not be able to collect the full amount of the current levy previously approved by our community.
Individual taxpayers will pay more, yet our revenues will not keep pace with our planned expenditures (using conservative figures associated with mandatory costs and inflation rates). This is what is being referred to as the “levy swap.”
Left unchanged, it will result in a projected loss of local levy dollars by approximately $270,000 in 2018-19 and $320,000 in 2019-20.
The projected cuts in local levy revenue are equivalent to four full-time certificated teachers.
The replacement of voter-approved, local levy revenue with non-voter approved, state schools tax revenue, much of which comes in the form of “categorical” (restricted) funding, reduces the ability of school districts and the communities they serve to make informed educational programming and staffing decisions at the local level.
Capital projects on hold
In addition to the loss of local control, two other areas needing immediate attention include increased funding for special education services and passage of the capital budget. State Superintendent Chris Reykdal has projected as much as a $130 billion annual shortfall in special ed services, about half-a-billion dollars over the next four years.
Across the state, school districts and communities are plagued with the challenge of updating and replacing an aging inventory of school facilities. Recognizing this need, many school districts and their communities have successfully passed bonds that qualify for matching funds provided by the state’s capital budget.
School districts engaging in new school construction typically fund these projects using bonds and matching funds from the capital budget. Given the need, we’ve seen an increase in the percentage of bonds being passed by their communities.
Unable to set aside politics, the Legislature failed to pass a capital budget, of which approximately $1 billion had been earmarked as matching funds for new school construction.
As a result, many districts that have worked with their communities to successfully pass a bond and were scheduled to begin construction have been forced to put their bond projects on the back burner, purchase portables to accommodate mandated class size reduction legislation, and watch the cost of construction skyrocket.
This has forced many to take out loans (if they can find a bank willing to provide a large loan) or prepare to go back to their voters and ask for the additional funds they anticipate needing to cover the escalating costs.
This has also had a ripple effect, impacting many construction companies, their suppliers, and their employees who also find themselves being placed on hold.
It’s not too late. Our local representatives serve us — tight-knit, rural communities that are committed to ensuring our children have access to an exceptional public education. I encourage you to contact your local representatives. Encourage them to set aside the politics, display the courage required to lead, and invest in public education — the future of a healthy, inclusive democratic society.
Tom Venable is superintendent of the Methow Valley School District.