By The Dispatch and WNPA Olympia Bureau

Educators in south Pierce County and across the state seemed relieved after the Legislature voted March 9 to avoid the levy cliff, a predicament that school districts warned would have caused a substantial drop in funding to the detriment of students.

“The levy cliff action was a much-needed piece of legislation, and we are so thankful that our legislators moved to impact this issue,” said Eatonville School District superintendent Krestin Bahr.

The House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 5023 with 87 members in support and 10 opposed after the Senate approved the measure the day before on a 48-0 vote. Lawmakers from the south Pierce County area were among those favoring the legislation.

The bill will freeze the current levy lid for school districts at 28 percent until 2019. The lid was scheduled to drop to 24 percent in 2018, which would have negatively affected the ability of districts to cover their costs.

A spokeswoman for Governor Jay Inslee said March 10 that he would sign the legislation.

School officials statewide warned in recent months that lowering the levy lid by 4 percent without alternative sources of funding could result in the levy cliff, a dropoff in funding that could lead to program cuts, teacher layoffs, and reduced services for students.

Complicating the issue is pressure on the Legislature to comply with a four-year-old state Supreme Court ruling that requires the state to improve its funding of education.

The Eatonville and Bethel school districts are among public school systems statewide that were hoping Washington’s lawmakers would spare them from the levy cliff. Local school levies were scheduled to expire next January and revert back to lower tax collections unless the Legislature extended school districts’ authority to maintain levies at existing levels.

Bahr said educators in the Eatonville district “look forward to increased collaboration this spring to solve the education funding situation so we can focus on the issue at hand - educating our students for a global society with 21st-century skills. Our society depends on our ability to create hope and possibilities for the next generation. It’s our legacy.”

Bethel district officials said previously that not extending the levy limit would be harmful to students’ educations.

Educators elsewhere, such as Ford Middle School teacher Pam Kruse in the Franklin Pierce School District near Tacoma, believe the levy-cliff debate was a distraction to the larger issue of fully funding basic education.

“This levy lid thing was posturing. We knew there was no way (the Legislature] couldn’t take care of this,” said Kruse, a leader of the Summit Uniserv Council, which represents several district-level teacher union memberships in Pierce County, including Bethel’s.

Kruse said she had no doubt 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 the extension not been approved.

According to Summer Stinson, vice president of Washington’s Paramount Duty, a group of parents and allies working to compel the state to fully fund basic education, keeping the levy lid at its current rate will allow districts to plan for the 2017-18 school year. Stinson added that passing SB 5023 should put the focus back on the more imperative education funding challenge faced by the Legislature.

“It takes the attention 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.

Most school districts can raise 28 percent of their maintenance and operation budgets through local voter-approved levies. Levy dollars are costs that fall outside of basic education. Because state funding often falls short, districts use local funds to help pay for basic education.

The levy lid was raised to 28 percent by the Legislature in 2010 to provide districts with additional funding while the Legislature struggled to fully fund education. That situation is continuing.

SB 5023 requires districts to create separate accounts for state and local funds. Before a local levy is proposed to voters, districts must provide the state superintendent of public instruction 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 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 (by the state Supreme Court) and the constitution require,” said Rich Wood, a spokesman for Washington Education Association (WEA), the largest union for public school employees in the state.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled 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 court imposed a $100,000-per-day fine, which so far totals over $57 million. The court has ordered the Legislature to fully implement a funding plan by Sept. 1, 2018.

Proposals have been put forward by the House Democrats, Senate Republicans, Inslee, and three Democrat senators to fully fund basic education.

The Senate Republican plan (SB 5607) was passed by the Senate in February and is currently under review 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’s Committee on Ways and Means.

Inslee’s plan (HB 1067) has received hearings in the House and Senate.

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.

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.”

Among the legislators representing south Pierce County who voted to pull back from the levy cliff included Sen. Randi Becker and Reps. J.T. Wilcox and Andrew Barkis from the Second District (which includes Eatonville, part of Graham and the Ashford area) and Reps. Christine Kllduff and David Sawyer of the 29th District (Spanaway and Graham areas, among others).

 

Grace Swanson of the WNPA Olympia Bureau contributed to this report, which is part of coverage of the Legislature through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.