Revisiting local school levies a year after state reaches McCleary compliance on basic education funding

Last December we said that local levies were likely to figure prominently in the 2019 legislative session.

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 [Note: It passed.] – that the Seattle Times editorial board believes breaks with the intent of the legislature’s McCleary fix.

Both the governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction have endorsed increases in local levy authority.

The governor set the stage for changes in local levy authority in his December budget proposal. The Washington Research Council assessed it this way in identifying its concerns with the budget,

First, the governor would completely reject theLegislature’s recent work to limit local school levies and return to the system that spawned the McCleary lawsuit. Doing so could put the state on a path to the next McCleary…

The Seattle Times editorial board wrote,

After six years and billions of new dollars invested in K-12 education, the governor, the superintendent of public instruction, Seattle Public Schools and some state lawmakers seem to have forgotten the essence of the landmark McCleary ruling. They are poised to open a door that would allow a return to an unevenly funded school system that shortchanged too many students.

Proposals from Gov. Jay Inslee and Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal would allow property-rich school districts to tap their affluent voters to increase their school funding way beyond the limits set by the Legislature in response to the 2012 McCleary ruling. They would raise the new 12 percent local levy limit to 28 percent and 22 percent respectively. That would be on top of the state property tax increases levied mostly on more affluent districts, with the understanding local levies would be reduced.

Stop right there. Those levy proposals would put Washington back on the path toward woefully inequitable school funding. And probably another school funding lawsuit.

The Olympian reports the governor’s proposal is moving through the state Senate.

Here’s the Olympian’s set up:

The state has pumped an additional $9 billion into funding public schools in response to the 2012 McCleary decision, which said the state had underfunded K-12 schools. In the current 2017-2019 operating budget, state K-12 spending accounted for 50 percent of the budget, or nearly $23 billion.

Last year, school districts collected about $2.6 billion through maintenance and operation levies, now called enrichment levies. That total will decline to about $1.6 billion this year, legislative staff members told lawmakers.

Let’s leave it at that, but note again that $9 billion increase in state dollars. The story continues.

The Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee has considered a bill requested by Gov. Jay Inslee that backers say would have enabled districts to eliminate that $1 billion reduction in collections.

The committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Wellman, amended the bill Friday to define the maximum local levy as 20 percent of prior year revenue or $3,500 per pupil. The committee approved it. Wellman said she couldn’t say how much of the $1 billion that districts in the future could collect under her plan.

“We modeled 295 districts and from the looks of it, I didn’t find any that weren’t either OK, just as good or better,” said Wellman, a Mercer Island Democrat. “I can only tell you this works for us.”

All this gets us back to the concerns raised earlier this year. The Olympian quotes a statement by Sen. Jon Braun, who was one of the architects of the education finance reforms to comply with McCleary.

“I understand why school districts and the education establishment would want the Legislature to increase local-levy authority, especially after seeing some of the salary increases negotiated this past summer,” Braun said in a statement. “But going down the road laid out in this bill will get our state in trouble, because some districts are always able to take better advantage of local taxing authority than others, and sooner or later that’ll create the same conditions which led to the McCleary lawsuit.”

We wrote about the collective bargaining decisions last summer.

Last session, the Legislature provided another $1 billion in school funding, complying with the state Supreme Court’s order to fully fund basic education. The increased state funding, however, corresponded with a reduction in local levies. So, the … large pay raises [negotiated] this year may not be sustainable in the future. Money raised from local levies are not meant to be used to supplement state dollars for compensation.

Here’s the link to the bill under consideration. One to watch.