By Bill Keim
On Feb. 13, voters will have their first opportunity to cast ballots on school levies since lawmakers passed legislation to address McCleary, the school funding lawsuit. That new law (EHB 2242) resulted in a significant increase in the state’s funding of basic education — but it by no means solves school districts’ education funding challenges.
While more state dollars will flow to schools, there is a big reduction in the discretionary funds available to sustain existing priorities. As a result, most districts with expiring levies are asking voters to support replacement levies for the maximum allowed under the new law.
A primary funding mechanism of the new law is a complex arrangement that increases state property taxes while reducing local school district levies. This change is confusing and may give voters pause before casting their ballots.
To be clear, local levies are still permitted under the new law for “enrichment” above state funding levels in most basic education program elements including instructional hours, staffing levels, professional development, as well as in specific programs, such as special education.
The real limitation imposed by the legislation is the significant reduction in the amount of local funding school districts can raise through levies. That reduction will present significant challenges in the years ahead.
For example, many school districts have used local levies to add staffing above state-funded levels. According to the most recent state data, in the 2015-16 school year, 2,242 certificated staff and 3,572 classified staff were hired with local levies. Other than a slight enhancement in K-3 staffing levels, nothing in EHB 2242 will provide state dollars to fund those locally-added positions.
While the new law allows districts to continue hiring these staff, it may be difficult to do so with the reduced levy capacity. That loss in local revenue will also make it difficult for school districts to cover the state funding shortfalls in other areas such as special education.
In an effort to continue existing staffing levels and other programs currently funded by local levies, school districts across the state seek to maximize the amount of levy funding allowed under this new law. They do this to maintain vital learning supports for the children they serve.
The upcoming levy elections are absolutely critical for sustaining current district programs. As with any levy election, each local community will determine if that support is warranted, but they will hopefully do so with the best information available.
Bill Keim is the executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators.