Even when Washington state legislators start to get it right on public school funding, they create new problems. Their inability to agree on a comprehensive plan and new state taxes is making things worse – particularly for school districts that need to pass property tax levies this year.
Thurston County school leaders say the state’s crazy-quilt funding system for schools is so confusing that some voters think levies are no longer needed.
That bodes poorly at a time the Legislature has actually been making progress toward – but not quite reaching – full state funding of basic education in K-12 schools, which the state Supreme Court has demanded.
▪ LEVIES – A large batch of levy requests is going to the ballot in a few weeks. All eight Thurston County public school districts have four-year replacement levies on the Feb. 9 ballot. One estimate is that roughly a third of the state’s 295 districts could have such requests on the ballot in the next few months.
In a meeting with The Olympian Editorial Board last week, Superintendents Raj Manhas of North Thurston Public Schools, Dick Cvitanich of Olympia schools and others said voters may think the need for levies has been reduced as a result of a Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that ordered lawmakers to put more money into schools.
“They think, because the Supreme Court ruled, it’s done,” Andy Wolf, superintendent for Yelm Community Schools, explained. But legislators “haven’t even created a (funding) plan, which is scary for us.’’
That misunderstanding is compounded by news headlines in recent years about the Legislature’s investment of more than $2 billion per biennium of new money into K-12 schools. But that money came with specific requirements for how it is spent – on reducing class sizes, for example, and all-day kindergarten. And the money didn’t reduce the need for levies.
▪ TEACHER PAY – Many problems the Legislature created for local districts are the result of the state not paying for all of K-12 schools’ employee pay. A portion of schools’ staff is paid entirely from local levies, and levy money also covers a portion of most other payroll.
So after the Legislature authorized cost-of-living-raises of roughly 3 percent over the 2015-17 biennium for school staff, local districts must use property-taxes from levies to cover their share of that increase.
▪ ELECTION – The impact of a levy failure on schools would vary by district. In North Thurston, loss of a levy for the 2017-18 school year would translate into cuts of potentially 275 staff. That is because levies are about a fifth of school operations costs, Superintendent Manhas said.
In response to that concern, Manhas and Wolf and their counterparts from the other Thurston districts have been making joint public appearances, presenting a unified message about the importance of levy support. Some levy campaigns are actually working together to reduce costs.
Without passage of levies, the superintendents expect to issue staff layoff notices in May next year. That would set back efforts to reduce class sizes.
▪ LEVY CLIFFS – Some districts collect extra large levies – even more than the 24 percent of state and federal funding that had been allowed by state law. Hoping to help school districts after the Great Recession, legislators of both parties agreed in 2011 to temporarily allow a higher levy lid of 28 percent.
But the special, higher levy authorization expires in 2018. That creates what some call a “levy cliff.”
Most Thurston County districts are affected; Yelm and Rochester are among those with small enough levies to avoid harm.
If lawmakers fail to postpone the levy cliff, it would reduce local funds for schools and trigger reductions in state levy equalization money that goes to poorer districts.
The total loss could be $480 million in 2018, according to Bill Keim, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators. A Senate committee said last year the impact might be closer to $260 million.
▪ SOLUTIONS – Lawmakers could have simplified everything last year by taking a step toward full state funding of K-12 staff compensation. That would have lessened the need for levies. And levy voters would know they were only basically paying for such extras as athletics, additional student tutoring or enrichment programs.
But to do the job the state might need to raise $3.5 billion or more in new revenues. In the end, Senate Republicans rejected most tax increases. And House Democrats decided not to push their capital-gains tax proposal, because the Senate opposed it.
In the short term, the best thing that can happen is that voters keep supporting levies, and that lawmakers allow higher levies for an extra year – into 2019.
Lawmakers never should have let it get to this.