The lid lift comes with stricter rules about how districts can spend local levy dollars
CLARK COUNTY — For the first time since 2009 the Washington State Legislature finished their 105-day session on time, with a flurry of last-minute bills passed late on Sunday night. Among those was Senate Bill 5313, which lifts the cap on maintenance and operations levies for school districts.
The move came in response to districts across the state who urged lawmakers to find a way to address impending budget shortfalls created in the wake of the McCleary education funding fix passed last year. In response to a state Supreme Court ruling, lawmakers passed a levy swap that raised statewide property taxes to fund education, while capping local levies at no more than $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value.
While the additional state funding hit last Summer, the levy lid took effect at the beginning of this year. The state funding was largely swallowed up in raises given to teachers across the state, often after strikes that delayed the start of school for many districts. Superintendents warned that the money they were losing through the levy cap would not be offset by the additional funding from the state.
SB 5313, which was sponsored by Democratic Senator Lisa Wellman of Mercer Island, lifts the levy lid to the lesser of $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $2,500 per student ($3,000 per student for districts with more than 40,000 students).
“This bill would allow voters and school districts to fund enrichment programs that fall outside basic education,” Wellman said after the bill was approved. “It allows communities to decide what’s important to them and act accordingly.”
Vancouver and Evergreen School Districts will each receive $7 million in one-time additional funding from the state. Each district has already approved replacement M&O levies at the $1.50 per $1,000 cap, and cannot raise that to the new cap without voter approval.
Vancouver Schools Superintendent Steve Webb said the district needs more time to examine the legislature’s actions and the impact of the one-time funding.
“We appreciate that legislators were receptive to our ongoing communication with them since last fall expressing our concerns about the projected budget shortfalls faced by VPS and most other districts in the state,” Webb said in a release from the district. “I especially want to thank Senator Annette Cleveland for her courageous advocacy and efforts to modify the regionalization factor for school districts in southwest Washington to improve the equity of the state’s new funding model.
SB 5313 does include language for the coming school year that specifically impacts Clark County schools with between 20,000-25,000 students, though it will be up to next year’s legislature to decide whether the additional regionalization assistance will be continued after this coming school year.
Newly appointed Evergreen School District Superintendent Mike Merlino also expressed thanks for Cleveland’s work to secure one-time funding to help close the budget shortfall there.
“We will now wait for more specific information about how all of the legislative budget decisions will impact Evergreen – both short and long-term,” stated Merlino. “Again, thanks to Senator Cleveland’s work, we are spared from making deep cuts of up to $18 million next school year, and remain cautiously optimistic that a longer-term solution will ensure better sustainability.”
As part of the deal to lift the local levy lid, Wellman said her bill includes tougher restrictions on how districts can spend local levy dollars.
“It’s clear that after making such large changes in 2017, which did not work as well for some districts as for others, we need to adjust our formula,” Wellman said. “This will allow communities to fund programs they value without triggering another pre-McCleary situation where local levies are paying for teacher salaries. This bill has teeth, ensuring that enrichment levies pay only for non-basic activities that local taxpayers choose.”
Districts will need to refine their budgeting operations to better account for where local levy dollars are going under SB 5313, and require yearly audits by the state to ensure that basic education funding is not coming out of the local levy dollars.
Hockinson and Ridgefield School Districts have also recently passed multi-year replacement M&O levies at the $1.50 per $1,000 rate, though it appears those districts will not qualify for the additional one-time help from the state.
The bill passed just before midnight on a straight party line vote, with Republicans accusing Democrats of ramming through a series of new taxes and spending bills with little-to-no public feedback or time to debate them.
“The majority’s insistence on raising taxes, despite record revenues and a $3 billion surplus, is short-sighted and shows a complete lack of respect for the will of the people,” said 18th District Representatives Brandon Vick and Larry Hoff in a joint statement. “Voters have rejected tax increases at the ballot box time and time again, yet majority party budget writers seem to have no interest in taking that into consideration.”
Senator Lynda Wilson (R-17th District) said she voted against the levy lid lift because she feels it’s the wrong answer to the problem of funding concerns raised by local districts.
“At a local level, taxpayers in many districts will end up with higher property taxes,” said Wilson in an e-mail to ClarkCountyToday.com. “From a constitutional standpoint, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen if districts once again begin relying too much on local dollars. It also means trusting school boards to protect any new local dollars more successfully than some of them protected the new state dollars they received in 2018. I hope my colleagues on the majority side in the Legislature are ready to ‘own’ higher taxes that result from SB 5313, because they could have handled this in another way that would have protected the taxpayers from higher rates.”