Local school operations and bond levies likely on 2019 legislative agenda.

With the state now in compliance with the state Supreme Court’s McClearly “full funding” ruling, some of us may have thought the 2019 legislative session may have avoided much discussion of school funding. That seems unlikely.

Earlier we noted concerns that a number of local school district collective bargaining agreements reached this year would prove to be unsustainable, prompting additional demands for state aid. As well,  the state’s largest district has requested an operations levy – to be voted on in February – that the Seattle Times editorial board believes breaks with the intent of the legislature’s McCleary fix.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal responded to the ST criticism of his decision to approve the Seattle operations levy proposal.

In 2017, the Legislature tasked my office with this process of reviewing levy plans before they go to voters, and it put new limits on how much funding school districts can collect in those levies — the key word being “collect.”

The law did not change how much levy authority school districts can put before their local voters. In other words, school districts can ask their voters for the authority to collect more levy dollars than the law currently allows them to collect; however, our school districts will only be allowed to collect within their legal limits. This has been the law for decades.
He adds,

In addition to these variances, Seattle Public Schools is asking for additional authority from voters because the Legislature significantly cut its local levy. Seattle will lose nearly $100 million in voter-approved school levies under the Legislature’s levy swap. This is too much! The Legislature has made important progress in amply funding our basic-education program, but it was under no court order to cut local voter-approved levies.

I have put forward a levy model to the Legislature that is simpler to understand and will give school districts across the state a more appropriate levy authority — all subject to voter approval, of course. If the Legislature makes these important adjustments, Seattle will be authorized to collect additional future enrichment dollars following a successful February levy vote.

Finally, Reykdal says the state is still underfunding education.

Despite the important gains the Legislature has made in basic education funding, we are still a low-funded education state based on how much of our total state economy we return to public education.

So operations levies will be in play.

Add now to that repeated editorial calls for the state to drop the supermajority requirement to pass a bond levy. Today, the Seattle Times editorial says,

This year, 46 school bond measures were put on the ballot statewide, according to the state superintendent’s office. Of the 28 bonds that were defeated, 24 of them failed despite amassing more than 50 percent of the vote. These included school bonds in Everett and Arlington, as well as in school districts such as Wenatchee and Toppenish.

Even slightly lowering the bar for passing bonds would make a huge difference. This year, 12 school construction bonds failed despite winning the approval of more than 55 percent of local voters. If lawmakers cannot agree on establishing a simple majority requirement for passing school bonds, they should pass a compromise that sets 55 percent as the new standard.

State Sen. Mark Mullet, an Issaquah Democrat working on that compromise measure, predicted it will be “a heavy lift,” since the change involves amending the state constitution. But he it’s said it’s important to “give districts flexibility on this, so it is easier to build schools.”

The ST made essentially the same case in 2017.  So did The Columbian last May. And The News Tribune last April. It’s an ongoing debate. In 2015 a proposed constitutional amendment got nowhere in Olympia.

As Sen. Mullet says, constitutional changes are heavy lifts

The State Constitution has been amended 83 times since its inception. Article XXIII, Section 1 addresses the process of amending the Constitution and Section 2 deals with constitutional conventions.

Amendments may be proposed in either branch of the legislature. The Legislature must approve the original proposal or an alternative to the proposed initiative with a 2/3 vote. The approved proposal is then placed on the ballot at the next state general election, and becomes law if approved by a majority of the electors. The state constitution may not be amended by voter initiative.

Going back into the McCleary fix to change policy with respect to the operations levies may also be a heavy lift.

But, the recent focus on getting state-local funding responsibilities right, so that the state meets its paramount duty to fully fund basic education, has again put local levies on the states policy agenda. 

Something to watch.