Lawmakers still grappling with court mandated education funding

School districts are relying on levies
By Josh Kelety, WNPA Olympia News Bureau | Feb 07, 2018
Photo by: Brandon Gustafson It must be election season! Signs in support of the two levies on the Feb. 13 ballot can be found all around Mukilteo, such as along the Mukilteo Speedway near 84th Street Southwest.

Despite the passage of last year’s bipartisan agreement to fully fund K-12 public education with a property tax hike, the state Legislature is still wrestling over the issue.

Last November, the state Supreme Court ruled the Legislature needs to ramp up funding for teacher and other school staff salaries to meet its imposed September 2018 deadline, despite the billions that have already been allocated to public education.

However, some lawmakers believe that they’ve already provided adequate funding for public education, and are in disagreement over how to respond to the court’s recent ruling.

The court’s ruling comes after recent dramatic changes: During last year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed a massive reform bill—HB 2242—that will funnel over $7 billion to K-12 schools throughout the state of Washington over four years, a move aimed at appeasing the monumental 2012 state Supreme Court McCleary ruling that the state was unconstitutionally underfunding public education.

At the root of the court’s mandate was the fact that, in the absence of adequate state funding for public education, local school districts were relying heavily on property tax levies to finance basic education costs—such as market-rate staff compensation.

While lawmakers had already put money toward education over the years, they hadn’t addressed funding for teacher and staff salaries.

The reforms passed last summer by lawmakers aimed to tackle this issue, by increasing state funding—partly through a hiked property tax—while capping the amount that school districts can bring in through local levies.

Under the reform bill, local levies are to be used for their original purpose, “enrichment” programming, such as extracurricular activities, summer school, and tutoring.

The limitations on local levies would begin in 2019, while the new statewide property tax kicks in this year.

Mukilteo, for instance, has two levies on the ballot for the Feb. 13 election that would go into effect in 2019, one for a replacement of educational programs, and the other for technology capital projects.

The replacement of educational programs, or Proposition 1 on the Mukilteo ballot, is capped at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Proposition 1 would help fund after-school activities, transportation, and additional services for special-needs students, among others.

As such, if voters in the Mukilteo School District approve both Proposition 1 and Proposition 2, which would be $0.28 per $1,000 and go down by 1 cent each year until 2022, the amount of money received by the Mukilteo School District will be reduced by roughly 27 percent from 2018 to 2019.

Mukilteo School District Director Judy Schwab believes the levies need to be approved, but the state still isn’t doing enough to fund basic education, and consequently school districts across the state are suffering.

“The original idea behind this levy swap was to make funding more equitable for school districts across the state and, as a matter of fact, it isn’t serving that purpose,” Schwab said. “I don’t know of one district that is going to get more money from the state for basic education than they got before.

“The idea that the state is giving us a lot more money is not exactly correct. The state is taking proportionately more dollars out of local property taxes, and they are replacing funding, but not supplementing funding in many cases.”

Those thoughts were echoed by different school districts across the state.

“No district under the plan of 2242 was supposed to lose money,” said Brian Talbott, superintendent of the Nine Mile Falls School District. “In all of the scenarios that we have run … the Nine Mile Falls School District is a loser.”

Schwab said things get further complicated because some services are required by the state, but with the levy cap and the state’s new formula, it’s making funding extremely difficult.

“The things that we in Mukilteo take for granted as a part of basic education are things like special education, transportation, substitute teachers, curriculum development,” Schwab said. “That all comes out of local levy dollars.

“With the new formula, our ability to pay those things out of local levy dollars is supposed to go away, but we still have to fund those things. Special education is a federal and state mandate.”

Mukilteo School District spokesman Andy Muntz also wanted Mukilteo voters to be aware that even if the two propositions are approved, property taxes will go down in 2019 and will replace current taxes, not add on to them.

“The stuff on the ballot has nothing to do with (property taxes) going up this year,” Muntz said. “That’s all stuff that was approved in 2014.

“I think part of it is people have a hard time with the paradigm of taxes actually going away. I think people think when a tax is there, it’s always there, and when there’s another tax, it just gets dumped on top of the other taxes.”

Further complicating the issues with education funding is that in their November ruling, the Supreme Court argued that even though the state Legislature is now in compliance with the McCleary mandate, lawmakers need to speed up the implementation of its funding plan for teacher and staff salaries.

They said the plan, as is, wouldn’t meet the September deadline.

The cost of ramping up the state funding to meet the deadline is roughly $1 billion.

As such, the court is maintaining the $100,000 per day fines that were imposed back in 2015 to incentivize the Legislature to act.

Mukilteo Beacon Editor Brandon Gustafson contributed to this story

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