Editorial: Levy cliff avoided, but lawmakers left out details

By The Herald Editorial Board

As we’re talking about schools, let’s grade this by subject: In passing legislation that extended the “levy cliff” deadline by a year — providing some breathing room for the state’s 295 school districts while the Legislature works out a larger fix to school funding issues — lawmakers earned A grades for timeliness, compromise and bipartisanship.

But as for legislative clarity, even a D-plus may be a little generous.

Bipartisan votes in both the Senate (48-1) and the House (87-10) passed SB 5023, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law Wednesday. The law pushes out until 2019 a reduction in the maximum amount school districts can request in property tax levies.

Currently, districts, with a few exceptions, can request up to 28 percent of their combined state and federal allocations in levies.

Without the new law that limit would have been reduced to 24 percent beginning in 2018, and would have meant a loss of $3.8 million next school year for Everett School District and $7 million for the Edmonds School District.

The intention remains that the reduction will coincide with the Legislature’s larger resolution of its Supreme Court decision, often referred to as the McCleary mandate, to amply fund education and end the reliance on school levies to provide a significant portion of funding for basic education, in particular, pay and benefits for teachers and administrative staff.

But school districts and supporters needed a safety net should lawmakers not reach a deal this year and asked for the extension to 2019.

House Democrats passed such an extension early in the session, but Republicans in the Senate wanted to add some accountability and wrote their own bill that requires school districts to set aside levy funds in a separate account and show they aren’t using them for basic education. But there’s disagreement among lawmakers now as to whether that means school districts are prevented from spending those funds on basic education after Jan. 1, even if the Legislature can’t agree on a larger McCleary fix.

As The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield wrote Tuesday, Republicans are saying yes, Democrats are saying no, and state agencies, such as the state Auditor’s Office and Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, who are supposed to provide guidance to the school districts, say they need more information to offer that direction.

Even the Legislature’s final bill report offers little clarity. It reflects the requirement for districts to show OSPI that levies aren’t being used for basic education. But in the next sentence it assumes the state will take full responsibility for basic education, but doesn’t say what happens if the Legislature fails to come to agreement on McCleary.

And there’s still a deadline to worry about: In order to place maintenance and operation levies on the ballot by February, school districts have to notify county election offices by early December, but the law requires school districts to submit a report on how the local levy dollars are used to OSPI before putting them on the ballot. And that can’t be done until the Legislature makes some decisions related to McCleary as to the maximum levy rate, which programs are considered “basic education” and which are “enhancements,” and what the salary schedule for teachers will look like.

Those details have to be worked out and provided to school districts and agencies if they are to meet these obligations.

Despite the unanswered questions, the levy cliff bill has provided a framework for one important McCleary solution: The accountability that the levy cliff agreement requires is necessary to show how districts are spending levy funds and that the state is taking full responsibility for teacher salaries and the rest of basic education.

And it’s shown that the Legislature knows how to use compromise and bipartisanship as it now fills in those details and works out how to pay for for basic education.

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