OLYMPIA — School districts will be able to collect more money from local property tax levies under a new law signed Tuesday by Gov. Jay Inslee.
The law eases the restriction on local levies set by lawmakers and the governor in 2017, and which leaders of many of the state’s 295 districts complained had hurt them financially.
“Some inequities and unintended consequences have resulted from previous education funding legislation,” Inslee said before signing Senate Bill 5313. “This measure aims to provide some remedy, especially for property poor school districts.”
Two years ago, state lawmakers and the governor increased the statewide property tax and distributed this new revenue to districts. This enabled the state to comply with the Supreme Court order in the McCleary case to provide ample funding to public schools.
At the same time, lawmakers capped what districts could collect from local taxes at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $2,500 per student — whichever was less. Described as a levy swap, lawmakers figured the increase of state dollars would make up for the loss of local tax revenue.
Many school districts said they suffered a significant loss of revenue to pay for enrichment programs such as sports, drama, music and any staff not funded by the state.
Under the new law, starting in 2020 districts will be able to collect $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $2,500 per student, whichever is less. Seattle Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is allowed to collect the lesser of $2.50 per $1,000, or $3,000 per student.
The governor left in place a provision to penalize districts which spend levy dollars on what the state deems to be basic education rather than enrichment programs as required. He said it will help ensure levy funds are being spent appropriately. Leaders of several school districts, including Everett and Lake Stevens, asked him to veto the language.
Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, the bill’s prime sponsor, said Tuesday she’s glad the governor didn’t use his red pen on that section. She expressed a willingness to tweak the language next session if necessary but not remove it completely.
“My feeling is the public expects us to make sure the funds are managed and to make sure there is transparency and accountability,” she said. “And if you want to have accountability, there has to be penalties.”
Superintendent Gary Cohn of the Everett School District is one of those who welcomed the lift of the levy lid but wanted the penalty taken out.
“Overall it’s a good result,” he said. It will provide immediate financial relief for districts like Everett whose voters approved a higher levy rate than the 2017 law allowed. It now will be able to collect it.
Senate Bill 5313 passed by margins of 53-45 in the House and 25-23 in the Senate.