State House votes to halt planned cut in school levy rates

OLYMPIA — The state House acted Monday to prevent school districts from seeing a critical stream of their revenue dry up while lawmakers sort out a long term strategy for fully funding education.

On a 62-35 vote, the House agreed to push back a planned cut in school levy rates for one year, a move intended to give district officials certainty that they won’t face a potential loss of millions of dollars while budgeting for next school year.

“We need to listen to the families, children and school leaders. Right now they’re scared,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, and member of the House Education Committee. “Passing this bill can at least give them some assurances moving forward.”

Twelve Republicans, including Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, joined the entire Democratic caucus to pass the measure, House Bill 1059.

“One year is it for me. We’ve got to fix McCleary this year,” Harmsworth said.

Opponents contend the bill is a cop-out. They said lawmakers agreed last year to not do anything with the so-called levy cliff until April 30 to keep the focus of the session on solving the problem. Passing the one-year extension amounts to a concession they won’t figure it out, foes said.

“School districts do need certainty and until we get our budget done and until we have a McCleary solution, they aren’t going to have certainty,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.

The bill now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate where it is unlikely to be acted on anytime soon.

“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,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said in a statement.

Most school districts use a share of their local property tax levies to help pay teachers, staff and administrators, as well as some expenses of basic education for students. In 2010, amid the recession, lawmakers agreed to let districts, with voter approval, increase the levy rate while the Legislature figured out how to amply fund public schools. Lawmakers now face a court order to do it by next year.

Under the original law, the levy rates are supposed to roll back to the prior levels at the end of 2017.

Collectively, school districts around the state could lose out on $358.3 million in the 2018 calendar year if that happens, according to a fiscal analysis prepared by legislative staff. Of the total, $250.8 million would be local property tax dollars and $107.5 million would be from state coffers in the form of local effort assistance, also known as levy equalization.

Everett School District officials estimate $3.3 million in levy receipts and another $500,000 in levy equalization are at stake for the school year which runs from Sept. 1, 2017 to Aug. 31, 2018. When calibrated for the 2018 calendar year, the potential loss could reach $10.3 million, district officials said.

“Delaying the levy cliff is a good common sense action to avoid disrupting school operations while the legislators get to a solution,” Everett schools Superintendent Gary Cohn said after the vote.

The Edmonds School District faces a loss of roughly $7 million in revenues for the next school year and almost $15 million over the course of 2018. Officials are penciling out the possibility of crafting two budgets, one that accounts for less money and one presuming the state keeps its word to fully fund the cost of basic education in the district.

Superintendent Kristine McDuffy said Monday’s vote “is a good sign. Obviously our number one priority is to have this addressed.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter @dospueblos.

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