The state Legislative Building in Olympia is shown in this file photo from Jan. 3, 2013. Tony Overman Staff file, 2013
The state Legislative Building in Olympia is shown in this file photo from Jan. 3, 2013. Tony Overman Staff file, 2013

Politics & Government

‘A big sigh of relief:’ Legislature approves deal on levy cliff to save school district budgets

March 09, 2017 12:35 PM

State lawmakers approved a deal to let school districts continue to collect the same level of local taxes for another year, delaying a 2018 deadline that school districts said would dramatically slash their budgets.

The House approved the bill to delay the so-called “levy cliff” on an 87-10 vote Thursday — a day after the same measure cleared the Senate.

Senate Bill 5023 now heads to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee, who said he plans to sign the bill into law as soon as possible.

“It gives some measure of certainty to our school districts as they are doing their budgeting process, (so) that they can move forward,” said state Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes.

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It gives some measure of certainty to our school districts as they are doing their budgeting process.

State Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes

The bill lawmakers approved would extend school districts’ current levy lid through January 2019. Without a change in law, the state’s 295 school districts were estimated to lose between $358 million and $500 million in the 2018 calendar year.

That’s because under current law, school districts are scheduled to lose some of their ability to raise local property taxes starting in January.

While the Democratic-controlled House passed its version of the levy cliff extension in January, the measure stalled in the Senate, which is controlled by a coalition of 24 Republicans and one conservative Democrat.

Republican Senate leaders initially said they worried delaying the deadline would reduce lawmakers’ motivation to solve the larger school-funding problems plaguing the state, which mostly revolve around the use of local levies.

In the McCleary case, the state is in contempt of court because the Legislature hasn’t come up with a way to end the unconstitutional use of local levies to pay for basic education.

The state Supreme Court has ordered lawmakers to come up with a plan this year to solve that problem — which will involve taking on local school district salary costs that should be paid by the state — by September 2018.

The Senate approved an amended version of the levy cliff measure after adding accounting provisions that lawmakers said would help prevent the unconstitutional use of local levy dollars to pay for state educational responsibilities.

We are very happy this is done, and we can now take this distraction off the table and focus on this big fix.

Dan Steele, lobbyist for the Washington Association of School Administrators

Some members of the House who voted against the measure Thursday said they still fear it will reduce the incentive for lawmakers to complete their overhaul of the school system.

“My concern with this bill is that we are once again removing the urgency from the situation,” said David Taylor, R-Moxee, who voted against the bill.

“What I hear from my folks at home is, “Will you stop doing these temporary fixes?’ 

The amended bill would require school districts to ensure they aren’t spending their local levies on basic education costs, such as teacher salaries.

To make that happen, districts would have to get approval from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction before putting new levies on the ballot — something Senate Republicans had proposed in their larger plan to overhaul the state’s school system.

School districts would also have to track that local tax money separately from education dollars that come from the state.

District officials praised the passage of the measure Thursday, but they also said they were unsure of how some of those accountability provisions would actually work.

Tom Seigel, superintendent of the Bethel School District, said he’s happy his district no longer has to worry about cutting $12 million from its budget in the 2017-18 school year and can move forward with hiring about 75 new teachers.

What I hear from my folks at home is, will you stop doing these temporary fixes?

State Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee

He was less thrilled with the requirement that districts seek state approval to put new levies on the ballot, calling it “just one more bureaucratic hoop you have to jump through.”

“It basically suggests the Legislature does not trust the local school districts to follow the law,” Seigel said.

“If the Legislature had been providing enough money for public education over the years, none of this discussion would be occurring now. That’s the reality,” he said.

Still, Courtney Schrieve, a spokeswoman for North Thurston Public Schools, said the bill’s passage has caused “a big sigh of relief” among district officials. North Thurston stood to lose about $10 million next year if the levy cliff took effect.

“Hopefully we can figure out how to divide the money and which goes where, and that sort of thing,” Schrieve said.

Dan Steele, lobbyist for the Washington Association of School Administrators, said resolving school districts’ immediate budget concerns should help lawmakers refocus on the multibillion dollar problem in front of them in the McCleary case.

He said lawmakers’ ability to compromise on the levy lid extension provides a “little bit of hope” that they can also come together to fix how the state pays for schools.

“We are very happy this is done, and we can now take this distraction off the table and focus on this big fix,” Steele said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1