Steer schools from ‘levy cliff’

On education funding alone, the Legislature has a healthy list of issues it must address in its scheduled 60-day short session that begins Jan. 11.

Along with the larger issue of continuing work to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s mandate that it show a clear plan for providing ample funding for K-12 education before a 2018 deadline, school districts across the state will also seek:

  • A change in the law for school bonds that would reduce the requirement that bonds pass with a 60 percent super-majority to a simple majority;
  • Fund school construction so districts can add the classrooms needed to reduce K-3 class sizes, reductions that lawmakers provided for in the 2015-17 budget; and
  • Adjust the state formula to increase the amount of funding of school construction per square foot to more accurately reflect the real costs of construction.

Ahead of all that, however, the Legislature must address the “levy cliff” that school districts could be pushed over at the end of August 2017. That’s the point at which the percentage that school districts can fund their maintenance and operations, which includes salaries and benefits for teachers, classified staff and administrators, from school levies drops to a maximum of 24 percent from the current 28 percent.

Blame this whole mess on the state transferring a larger portion of the responsibility for amply funding education from itself onto local school district levies, a practice that has been ruled unconstitutional because levies are not a regular and dependable source of funding. The Levy Lid Act of 1977 capped the maximum percentage of levy funds as part of a district’s budget to 10 percent. Among amendments since then, the cap was first raised to 24 percent, then to 28 percent, but with the provision that the maximum would drop back down to 24 percent in 2017, in recognition of the 2018 deadline that the Legislature imposed on itself to fix the funding crisis. That deadline has since become a Supreme Court mandate through its McCleary decision.

But the true deadline, and the reason school districts are worried about the levy cliff, comes at the end of the next 60-day session. Like turning around an aircraft carrier, avoiding the levy cliff requires action well in advance.

As an example, the Everett School District stands to lose about $10.1 million in funding over a two-year period when the levy lid drops to 24 percent from 28 percent. Without action by the Legislature by mid-March when the 2016 session ends, the Everett district and most others will have to begin preparing for the loss of funding that fall. Everett school officials have mapped out a process beginning in October to cut $4.6 million from its budget in advance of sending out reduction-in-force notices to teachers and others in April 2017 for the new school year starting that September.

Even if the Legislature were to solve everything by the end of its 2017 biannual budget session, Everett and other school districts are obligated to start planning and implementing the cuts long before then.

Even as the state racks up $100,000-a-day fines imposed by the Supreme Court following the Legislature’s inability to show a detailed plan for fixing the lack of ample funding, it would be impossible for lawmakers to resolve this this year. It took three 30-day sessions after this year’s 105-day session to get as far as the Legislature did. Instead, by the end of the next session, the Legislature should push the date of the levy cliff far enough ahead to give school districts some breathing room.

Self-imposed deadlines are great for ensuring you get things done on time, but it’s bad practice to put the consequences on others than yourself.

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