School districts in Washington state are approaching the “levy cliff,” a planned reduction in what school districts can collect through local property tax levies.
“Cliff” is an appropriate metaphor. That reduction means a decrease of $358 million in funding to Washington’s public school districts. This comes as the state Legislature is grappling with providing adequate funding for basic education in grades K-12, in accordance with the state Constitution and a court order in McCleary v. Washington.
State House Bill 1059 would delay taxation restrictions — and ease districts away from the cliff. The House approved the bill 62-35, with 12 Republicans joining Democrats in approval. The bill now goes to the state Senate.
Support there is not certain. It should be, and the Senate should approve the bill. In a Jan. 24 report by Jerry Cornfield of the (Everett) Daily Herald, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the House bill could work against a longer-term solution toward providing adequate funding for basic education in grades K-12.
“While I can appreciate the House expressing its concern over the levy cliff, making a property tax extension outside of a broader K-12 solution may complicate finding a solution,” Schoesler said in a statement.
Schoesler’s concern is shared, at least partly, by one atypical bedfellow. During testimony before a House committee, a spokeswoman for the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association, supported the bill but said it should be included as part of the larger solution. Early action on the levy cliff bill, the WEA said, could delay a resolution to McCleary this session.
Now, some lawmakers might think steering away from the levy cliff will ease pressure on them to get a fix in place this session. They shouldn’t, and it’s not likely the Supreme Court will grant lawmakers a deadline extension that easily.
School districts will soon — if they haven’t already — begin budget preparations for the 2018-19 school year.
Uncertainty about funding will require districts to prepare two budgets. And without a pushback from the cliff before spring, when districts begin making staffing decisions for the next school year, they will be forced to notify teachers and other staff that they could be laid off, an action that does nothing to help schools retain good teachers.
Timely action by the Senate on Bill 1059 is necessary, in the interests of school districts and students.