What voters need to know about school levies in 13 districts

Normally, replacement levy ballot measures are routine. But this time the situation is complicated.

EVERETT — Nearly every school district in Snohomish County is proposing a local levy on the Feb. 13 ballot.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.

Most are billed as replacements for expiring local taxes supporting programs and operations. Eight districts also are asking voters to renew or add technology and capital levies.

Normally, replacement levies are routine. They require a simple majority and districts have two chances in a calendar year to pass them. The county’s last double levy failure was in the Snohomish School District nearly a quarter century ago.

This time, changes in state law, coupled with steep increases in property values in many areas, have complicated things.

In its efforts to address the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which requires the state to fully fund education, the Legislature last year passed new laws dealing with school taxes. The plan is to funnel $7.3 billion more in state dollars toward schools over the next four years. That means the amount the state collects from property owners for education is increasing this year. Local school levies will be capped starting in 2019.

The result is that homeowners can expect a jump in school taxes for 2018, due to the increase in state rates on top of existing district-level levies and bonds. It adds up to hundreds of dollars more for most homeowners.

By 2019, local taxes are expected to drop to offset the hike in state collections.

That’s assuming no major changes are made by the state. Property values also will continue to affect taxes.

State school taxes this year are about 82 cents per $1,000 assessed property value higher than last year, according to Snohomish County Assessor Linda Hjelle.

Local levies are now called enrichment levies. State dollars are meant to cover basic education while local taxes would be for expenses beyond that. However, school officials say the state’s definition of basic education doesn’t match what schools have been providing, and levies are needed to continue programs and staffing levels.

Meanwhile, taxpayers are caught in a tricky transition for school funding, and the one-year hit could prove tough for many.

The curve ball

Three districts — Everett, Marysville and Darrington — are proposing four-year levies that are higher than the state-imposed cap, which is $1.50 per $1,000 assessed property value or $2,500 per student, whichever would bring in less revenue.

Index is requesting $2.12 per $1,000 in 2019, but then would drop to $1.50.

District officials say they are tracking proposed changes to state law that would allow districts to collect either $2,500 per student or the same rate per student as current levies. If state law does not change, districts such as Everett, Marysville and Darrington could not exceed the state-imposed $1.50 per $1,000 cap even if voters approve measures for the higher amount.

The $1.50 cap creates inequity, said Mike Sullivan, director of finance and operations for Marysville schools. Marysville would bring in less than $1,500 per student and the state would have to kick in to boost funding to that minimum level, he said. Meanwhile, districts with high property values can collect $2,500 per student.

“I just feel that our kids deserve to get the same amount of funding per student as the kids in Bellevue,” Sullivan said.

Marysville’s levy, if the law changes, would cost taxpayers an estimated $2.97 per $1,000 in 2019, based on $2,500 per student.

Asking for a higher rate gives districts flexibility, Darrington Superintendent Buck Marsh said. The more the state provides, the less districts have to rely on local dollars.

“We’re just maintaining that authority to collect the maximum amount, which is still less than what we collected in the past, so if there’s any delay in the state system we can maintain what we have,” he said.

The Everett School District’s request is based on $2,200 per student in the first two years, $2,350 in the third and $2,500 in the fourth.

Many taxpayers are interested in the bottom line — the overall tax rate for education when state costs after McCleary are added to local levies and bonds.

The timing of the Legislature’s fix for basic education “was like being thrown a curve ball soaked in grease,” said Jeff Moore, the Everett School District’s finance director.

For Everett, the overall tax rate for state and local costs was $5.88 per $1,000 in 2017. It is $6.38 per $1,000 in 2018, but is projected to dip to $5.86 per $1,000 from 2019 to 2022. That assumes the Legislature does not add to the tax rate again when it tries to address a court mandate to fix special education funding.

“We did work very hard to do what we could in our control to keep tax rates steady,” said Everett School Board President Caroline Mason.

Voter uncertainty

In 35 years of living in Edmonds, Tom Nicholson had never gone to a school board meeting until last week. He has two grown children who went to school in Edmonds. He has concerns about the levy request.

Edmonds is one of eight county districts seeking $1.50 per $1,000. The others are Granite Falls, Lake Stevens, Monroe, Mukilteo, Northshore, Snohomish and Sultan.

School taxes are “impacting the ability of residents to stay in their homes,” Nicholson said.

He noted that the Edmonds district has fewer students now than a decade ago. With lower enrollment, increasing home values and more state funding, he’s not sold on a four-year levy that would generate more than $250 million.

He would be more likely to support a two-year proposal, which would have given the district time to adjust to state funding changes.

“In all businesses I’ve worked in, if you have an uncertain funding source and a decreasing number of consumers, you take interim steps,” he said.

Kristine McDuffy, superintendent of the Edmonds district, said enrichment levies would, in part, bridge gaps in state funding for special education and salaries.

“Our levy has always been our second largest source of funding and it still will be, even reduced,” she said.

About 87 percent of the district’s operating budget is salaries and benefits. Even when enrollment is flat, those costs go up.

The state has made progress in increasing funding for salaries, particularly for teachers, McDuffy said. However, there still is work to be done on pay for other staff.

As for a two-year levy, she said, it wouldn’t be prudent with the cost of elections, and it wouldn’t address the 2018 tax hike.

“We certainly empathize with homeowners in our district who are impacted by increasing assessed valuations and what the state’s done,” she said.

Never simple

Voters are likely to see their tax statements and think, “I didn’t sign up for this,” said Sullivan, in Marysville.

“And they didn’t,” he said. “I think there is definitely a belief out there that now education is fully funded, so what do I need a levy for? Well, I need a levy for everything I needed a levy for before.”

There are programs and staff that districts might consider essential, but they don’t fall under the state’s definition of basic education, he said.

In Marysville and Snohomish schools, for example, the plan is to have a full-time counselor in every elementary. The state pays for half a counselor position per elementary. The other half needs to come from local dollars.

“The state provides for basic education, but the levies provide what we consider important to Snohomish,” said Kent Kultgen, superintendent of the Snohomish School District.

That includes high school resource officers, free ACT testing for high school juniors and extra transportation in a district that is geographically large, Kultgen said. In general, enrichment levies also can be used for things such as athletics, summer school and programs in music and art.

Snohomish and Marysville are among the eight districts proposing technology levies, capital levies or both. Those measures, separate from enrichment levies, would provide technology infrastructure, such as wireless internet, and devices and training to add technology in classrooms. On the capital side, the money can be used to replace aging equipment and upgrade systems in schools, such as lighting, security and heating and ventilation.

Granite Falls, Lake Stevens, Mukilteo, Northshore, Stanwood-Camano and Sultan are the other districts bringing technology or capital levies to voters. Everett, Arlington and Northshore are seeking more than $700 million in school construction bonds, as well.

For most districts, though, enrichment levies are central in this election.

“We enjoy a community that supports us, but we do get questions about the amounts because people have heard about McCleary and the state fully funding education,” Kultgen said. “When I talk to them, people understand that it is never as simple as you want it to be.”

Herald Writers Eric Stevick and Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

See the ballot

To view a sample ballot with all measures for the Feb. 13 election, go to snohomishcountywa.gov/DocumentCenter/View/48890.

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