The Washington Legislature has two big challenges this year in paying for K-12 public schools. One is urgent, the other is very, very expensive.
The best-known challenge is the state Supreme Court ruling in the McCleary case in 2012. It required full state funding of schools by September 2018, and that could require $1.75 billion a year in new resources to pay for K-12 staff salaries.
The less talked about challenge is called the “levy cliff.’’ This is a relatively inexpensive change in law that would let local school districts keep more than $350 million of local property-tax levies already approved by taxpayers for use in the next school year. Matching funds for poorer districts also are affected.
Why this is urgent is that the state law letting districts collect a higher levy rate expires at the end of the year. But school budgets need to be written — and staffing levels decided — much sooner.
Nonpartisan legislative staff estimates the impact of the “cliff” is $3.36 million for Olympia schools, $7.3 million for North Thurston schools, and almost $2 million for Tumwater. A smaller district such as Yelm could lose $1.3 million and cuts are estimated at $429,327 for Rochester, $372,257 for Tenino, and $235,581 for Griffin.
Losing those excess levy funds would force many school districts to cut staff as a hedge — if they don’t have reserves to tap in the short term. Extending the cliff now lets school districts notify teachers more accurately of layoffs, if needed, in May.
Seeing this trouble on the horizon, the House voted last week by a 62-35 margin to extend the cliff by a year until January 2019.
Majority Democrats were joined by a few Republicans in passage of House Bill 1059. GOP opponents, including some in the Republican-controlled Senate, want to keep the levy cliff in place as motivation to get a larger budget deal in response to the McCleary ruling.
The common assumption by policymakers is that a full-funding solution makes the levy cliff question moot. But getting such a deal before May is far from certain. The last two biennial budgets required overtime legislative sessions to reach agreement, and that was with government shutdowns looming as possibilities.
Our South Sound delegations split when House Bill 1059 came up for a vote in the House last week. We applaud those who voted to extend the cliff — Rep. Laurie Dolan and Rep. Beth Doglio, both Olympia Democrats, as well as Republican Rep. Dan Griffey of Allyn. They all know it’s a waste of time and effort not to give districts a safety net.
On the other side were Republican Reps. Drew MacEwen of Union, J.T. Wilcox of Roy, Andrew Barkis of Thurston County, Richard DeBolt of Chehalis, and Ed Orcutt of Kalama.
HB 1059 is now in the Senate, which as of last week had not put out an education funding plan to match the one that some House Democrats have outlined. Though a Senate Republican plan may come very soon, there is too much risk in making school districts wait or cut staff.
So legislators, please don’t push Washington’s public schools over a cliff.