2017 Legislative Session: School levy lid stays on; Governor’s signature next

OLYMPIA — Educators across the state seem relieved after the Legislature voted to avoid the levy cliff March 9, but some, such as Morris E. Ford Middle School teacher Pam Kruse, believe this debate was a distraction to the larger issue: fully funding basic education.

“This levy lid thing was posturing,” said Kruse. “We knew there was no way they [the Legislature] couldn’t take care of this.”

The House passed SB 5023 with 87 in support and 10 opposed after the Senate approved the bill on Wednesday with 48 in support and one opposed. This bill will freeze the current levy lid at 28 percent until 2019; the lid was scheduled to drop to 24 percent in 2018.

Next, SB 5023 goes to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. On Friday, March 10, Inslee’s communications associate Simon Vila indicated the governor would sign the bill.

The House passed a levy lid delay bill, HB 1059, in late January. Democratic Senators tried and failed to bring tat bill to the Senate floor a few days later.

Lowering the levy lid by 4 percent without alternative sources of funding could result in a “levy cliff,” which may lead to program cuts, teacher dismissals, and students without access to resources.

Kruse is an eighth grade environmental science teacher in the Franklin-Pierce School District, just south of Tacoma. She had no doubt that the Legislature would eventually pass SB 5023.

“Calling it the ‘levy cliff’ was a strategy to make it sound like this gloom and doom,” she said. “There’s no way they could cut that many teachers.”

Collectively, districts across the state could have lost an estimated $358 million had this extension not been approved.

Summer Stinson, vice president of Washington’s Paramount Duty, said keeping the levy lid at its current rate will allow districts to plan for next year. The organization is a non-partisan grassroots group of parents and allies working to compel the state to fully fund basic education.

Stinson added that passing SB 5023 should put the focus back on the more imperative education funding challenge faced by the Legislature this session.

“It [passing SB 5023] takes the attention and turns it away from the levy cliff, which was a manufactured distraction, and turns it toward the true issue at hand, which is amply and equitably funding basic education for every school in our state,” she said.

Currently, a majority of school districts can raise 28 percent of their Maintenance and Operating Costs through local taxpayer approved levies. Levy dollars are intended to fund enrichment costs that fall outside of basic education. Oftentimes, state dollars fall short and districts use these local funds to pay for basic education costs.

The levy lid was raised to 28 percent by the Legislature in 2010 to provide districts with additional funding while the Legislature grappled with a solution to fully fund education.

Adopted on Wednesday, an amendment to SB 5023 put forward by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, requires districts to create separate accounts for state and local funds. Before a local levy is proposed to voters, districts must provide the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) with a report on how the funds will be spent. OSPI must approve the spending plan to ensure local dollars aren’t used for basic education purposes.

Educators now want lawmakers to focus on passing a plan to fully fund basic education.

“Now that they’ve taken care of the levy cliff problem, they should focus on amply funding basic education that the McCleary decision and the constitution require,” said Washington Education Association (WEA) spokesman Rich Wood. WEA is the state’s largest union for public school employees.

Fully funding education has been determined to be Washington state’s “paramount duty,” making basic education the state’s first financial priority.

In 2012, the Washington Supreme Court found the state wasn’t sufficiently funding basic education and the Legislature has wrestled to find a solution ever since.

Unsatisfied with the Legislature’s progress toward a basic education funding plan in 2015, the Washington Supreme Court imposed a $100,000 fine per day, which so far totals over $57 million. The Legislature must fully implement a basic education funding plan by Sept. 1, 2018.

Education funding proposals have been put forward by the House Democrats, Senate Republicans, Gov. Inslee, and a few Democrat Senators to fully fund basic education.

The Senate Republican plan (SB 5607) was passed by the Senate in February and is currently in the House Committee on Appropriations. Meanwhile, the House Democrats’ proposal (HB 1843) was passed by the House in February and was referred to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

On Jan. 12, Gov. Inslee’s plan (HB 1067) was given a public hearing in the House Committee on Appropriations. There was a public hearing on the plan proposed by three Democratic Senators (SB 5825) in the Senate Committee on Ways and Means on Feb. 27.

Kruse is encouraged that funding education is a large priority for the Legislature this session. Despite insufficient funding, she believes that teachers always strive to help students succeed.

“Yes we [teachers] have challenges, but we roll up our sleeves and do the work that we need to do,” she said. “If the Legislature funded our schools, imagine how much we could do.”

Grace Swanson is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.

This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. Foundation. Reach reporter Grace Swanson at grace.swanson47@gmail.com.

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