In a less imperfect world, the Washington Legislature would have found a way to fully fund public schools with state dollars long ago. If it had, we might never have had to learn what a “levy cliff” is.
This so-called cliff is a nickname legislators have given to a financial problem they created for local school districts a few years ago. Lawmakers were buying themselves time to answer a state Supreme Court order in 2012 to fully fund basic education in K-12 public schools over a number of years, and they created a temporary financial lifeline for local schools.
In effect, lawmakers temporarily raised the lid on local property tax levies that are used to pay for school costs not covered by the state. The result is that some school districts today are supplementing their operations with local levies to the tune of 28 percent or more of their operating budgets.
That levy lid drops back down to 24 percent next year, creating a fall-off of millions of dollars worth of local funds for many school districts.
That fall-off is called a cliff because some districts will feel like they’ve gone off a cliff when their revenues drop in the 2017-18 school year. Teachers and librarians and school nurses will feel like they are slipping off a cliff when they are told next May that they might not have their contracts renewed.
The situation will produce havoc for budget writers and a lot of angst for staff in many local school districts, according to Olympia schools superintendent Dick Cvitanich.
It’s fair to ask how lawmakers got into this mess. And how they can get out.
Faced with the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2012 in the McCleary case, lawmakers boosted state funding for local schools by several billion dollars over the past four years. But they put off a costly piece — replace school levies with state dollars for basic education costs.
But fearing a voter backlash over tax increases, lawmakers avoided making hard choices on new revenue sources to accomplish that.
In their most recent legislative session, legislators passed a bill to collect data on how much staff compensation is actually paid out of levies by local school districts. The data were needed to guide the plan for full funding of schools in time for the 2017-18 school year.
But in doing that, lawmakers left the levy cliff in place.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, offered one reasonable-sounding answer for why lawmakers balked at keeping the levy lid higher for an extra year. He said that might have sent a message to the Supreme Court that legislators were not going to even try reaching their school funding goals next year.
That sounds reasonable for a lawmaker, but it is not reasonable for a school board or school superintendent.
In 2017-18 the levy-cliff cuts in a district like Olympia will be large — equivalent to 50 staff positions. It’s equal to about 55 jobs in the following year. In the larger North Thurston Public Schools, the impact is equivalent to 100 positions.
Cvitanich says the levy cliff was the No. 1 legislative concern for Thurston County’s K-12 school superintendents. “I think that is where the disappointment lies. This was really important to all of us — for stability of our teaching staff … We understand everything is complex. We wish everything would move faster,’’ Cvitanich said last week.
While there’s hope that lawmakers address the issue early in their next session in January, Cvitanich said: “I don’t think there is a lot of faith that is going to happen.’’
Cvitanich and Jennifer Priddy, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said the uncertainty means the district will need to write two budgets for the 2017-18 school year. And then they’ll wait to see if lawmakers solve the school funding problem, or extend the cliff, before the standard mid-May deadline for notifying teachers of any reductions in force.
All of this is sure to be stressful for everyone. It’s a quandary for virtually all Thurston County school districts.
School administrators already are struggling to hire new teachers in order to reduce class sizes. There already was a statewide teacher shortage and now the threat of layoffs.
All of this underscores something often noted on this page: that the Legislature must quit messing around and step up to its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education.
That means offering real solutions that provide new funds. Whether that is tax reform, a capital gains tax, an income tax, or even a carbon pollution tax — it’s a question that must be answered by legislators and their challengers.
It’s no longer enough to simply say one is for schools. Voters must demand answers. So should the court.