Editorial: Lawmakers must loosen school levy restrictions

The “levy swap” lawmakers adopted in 2017 has left some districts facing deep budget shortfalls.

By The Herald Editorial Board

A one-size-fits-all solution rarely works, whether it’s for 295 people buying pants or 295 school districts looking for a levy formula that helps fund the educational expenses for which the state doesn’t pay.

And two-sizes-fit-all probably isn’t going to work much better.

Yet that’s the challenge before state lawmakers, who now are working to resolve consequences that resulted from their 2017 solution to the state Supreme Court mandate — the McCleary lawsuit — that required them to substantially increase state support for K-12 schools and end an over-reliance on local district levies, itself the result of state budget cuts during the recession.

The solution — dubbed the levy swap — increased the state’s portion of the property tax but mandated a reduction that capped the amount that local school districts could seek in levy elections.

While legislation successfully increased state spending, the levy swap’s formula for local levies had different outcomes for different districts. For some districts the swap improved their finances, but in general, the 2017 legislation this year has resulted in a reduction in local school district levies of about $1 billion statewide, with a significant majority of school districts now facing budget shortfalls.

And the local district levy formula has created its own inequities. Because of how it’s structured Lake Stevens, Marysville and Snohomish school districts’ levy collections (joined by levy equalization funds) for 2019 are $1,500 per student; Everett School District does a little better at $1,557, while Northshore School District in Bothell has a per-student take of $2,221.

Local school districts are among those who are having to plan for budget shortfalls caused by the levy swap. Everett School District, assuming the Legislature doesn’t address the reductions caused by the levy swap, would have to find more than $6.5 million in cuts for the 2019-20 school year. Edmonds School District would have to absorb about $17 million to $18 million in cuts.

Along with the bipartisan recognition that the state will need to increase funding for special education this year that it left out of the McCleary solution in 2017, lawmakers in the Senate and House — both with Democratic majorities — are looking to provide greater levy flexibility to school districts, while Republicans in both chambers warn of undoing a solution that could lead to the statewide inequalities that brought on McCleary in the first place.

The formula in House Bill 2140 offers two options: a levy cap that would allow the lesser of $3,000 per pupil or $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value; or an amount equal to 20 percent of the state and federal funds received for the 2018 school year.

Senate Bill 5313 would offer two formulas depending on district size: Those districts under 40,000 students could collect the lesser of $2.50 per $1,000 or assessed value or $2,500 per student, which is the current law; and districts over 40,000 students could collect the lesser of $2.50 per $1,000 of valuation or $3,000 per student.

If the issue weren’t complicated enough, recent wee-hour amendments have proposed increased funding for charter schools and a cap on teacher raises from levy revenue after 2022.

A few points as the Legislature approaches April 28, the last day of its 90-day regular session, and why more flexibility for school districts regarding their levies must be adopted this session:

The Legislature’s McCleary solution addressed the state’s “paramount duty … to make ample provision for the education of all children,” resulting in the state’s commitment to pay for “basic education.”

That “basic education,” while never formally defined, is largely understood to include teacher salaries, materials, transportation and more. But “basic education” doesn’t include many of the things we still expect our schools to provide: special education, early childhood education, before- and after-school programs, athletic and club programs, music programs, classroom support and more, along with filling in the gaps in what the state provides.

School district levies, while they’ve been renamed “enrichment” levies, are about funding the things that make schools more than “basic” and provide the kinds of learning environments that allow students to explore and prepare for the career, college and life opportunities that are possible for them.

Regardless of how much a school district might seek, the final decision on levy amounts is up to the voters of individual districts. Requests that seek too much are rejected, which is why school district officials, board members, parents and others are careful to craft levy requests that balance the district’s needs with what that district’s taxpayers can afford.

Failing to fix the inequities among districts caused by the levy swap would begin to undo what lawmakers accomplished just two years ago. The Legislature in 2017 stepped up to make major investments in “basic education.” Lawmakers now need to allow school districts, working with their communities, to fund education beyond basic needs.

Correction: The Everett School District, in estimating potential budget cuts if no change is made to what districts are allowed to request, now estimates it would need to cut $6.5 million from its budget, and not the figure first stated in an earlier version of this editorial.

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