Legislature preserves school districts’ property tax levy limit

Without the bill, the amount school districts could levy, or tax, local property owners would have dropped by 4 percent in 2018.

OLYMPIA — Educators across the state seem relieved after the Legislature voted to avoid the so-called levy cliff March 9, but some, such as Morris E. Ford Middle School teacher Pam Kruse, believe this debate distracted from the larger issue: fully funding basic education.

“This levy lid thing was posturing,” Kruse said. “We knew there was no way they [the Legislature] couldn’t take care of this.”

The House voted 87-10 to approve SB 5023, after the Senate approved the bill 48-1 on March 8. Without the bill, the amount school districts could levy, or tax, local property owners would have dropped by 4 percent in 2018.

SB 5023 now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. On March 10, Inslee’s communications associate Simon Vila indicated the governor would sign the bill.

Lowering the limit that school district could tax — called a “levy lid” in bureaucratic parlance — without alternative sources of funding could result in program cuts, teacher dismissals, and fewer resources for students.

Kruse is an eighth-grade environmental science teacher in the Franklin-Pierce School District, just south of Tacoma. She had no doubt that the Legislature would approve SB 5023.

“Calling it the ‘levy cliff’ was a strategy to make it sound like this gloom and doom,” she said. “There’s no way they could cut that many teachers.”

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

Summer Stinson, vice president of Washington’s Paramount Duty, said keeping the levy limit 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 approving 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. Often, 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 legislature grappled with a solution to fully fund education.

An amendment to SB 5023 put forward by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, requires districts to create separate accounts for state and local funds. Before a local levy is proposed to voters, districts must provide the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction with a report on how the funds will be spent. OSPI must approve the spending plan to ensure local dollars aren’t used for basic education purposes.

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 spokesman Rich Wood. WEA is the state’s largest union for public school employees.

The state Constitution says fully funding education is the state’s “paramount duty,” making basic education the state’s first financial priority. In 2012, the state 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 toward a basic education funding plan in 2015, the state Supreme Court imposed a $100,000 fine per day, which so far totals more than $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 Democratic senators.

The Senate Republican plan (SB 5607) was passed by the Senate in February and is currently before 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, Inslee’s plan (HB 1067) was given a public hearing before the House Committee on Appropriations. There was a public hearing on the plan proposed by three Democratic senators (SB 5825) before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means on Feb. 27.

Kruse is encouraged that funding education is a large priority for the Legislature this session. Despite insufficient funding, she believes that teachers always strive to help students succeed.

“Yes, we [teachers] have challenges, but we roll up our sleeves and do the work that we need to do,” she said. “If the Legislature funded our schools, imagine how much we could do.”

(This story is part of a series of news reports from the state Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Contact reporter Grace Swanson at grace.swanson47@gmail.com)