Leaders from the Puget Sound region’s 35 school districts called for lawmakers to come up with a solution to the “levy cliff,” which could cause a $228 million shortfall starting next year.
Leaders from the Puget Sound region’s 35 school districts gathered on Thursday to try to persuade state lawmakers to quickly come up with a solution to the “levy cliff,” which could cause a $228 million shortfall in those districts starting next year.
The cliff refers to the fact that school districts may not be able to collect as much money as they have in the past through local levies.
Most districts now can collect up to 28 percent of their levy base — the amount received in state and federal funding — through local levies each calendar year. That percentage, known as the levy lid, will decrease to 24 percent starting in 2018, unless the Legislature votes to keep the lid higher.
District leaders say the Legislature needs to keep the 28 percent in place until the state further increases its contribution to public-school funding, as required under the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision. The court ruled in 2012 that the state was violating its constitution by underfunding schools.
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Without such an extension, districts are now having to plan their 2017-2018 school-year budgets without those levy dollars. Seattle, for example, is planning a “worst-case scenario” budget, which includes a levy-cliff loss of about $30 million.
Some lawmakers are already trying to get districts the relief they seek. Two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, propose delaying any revisions to the levy lid by one year. Both are sponsored by Democrats.
But educators are still nervous.
“Right now I’m not as confident as I would like to be, and that’s coming from how difficult it has been for our elected leaders to reach an agreement on how to fund basic education,” said John Welch, who leads the Puget Sound Educational Service District, a regional group that serves the 35 school districts.
The Washington Education Association, the main teachers union in the state, supports delaying the levy cliff, but emphasizes that the focus should be on fully complying with the McCleary decision, spokesman Rich Wood said.
Districts had hoped that the state would already have come up with a plan to fully fund public education, Renton School District Superintendent Art Jarvis said at the Thursday news conference. But as it stands now, Renton would lose $11 million in local levy money with no state money increase yet in place.
“We cannot withstand that revenue loss,” Jarvis said.
Lawmakers likely won’t complete the state budget for 2017-19 until spring or later, and districts have to finalize their budgets earlier than that. If the levy cliff isn’t addressed, districts might have to send layoff notices to teachers and other school employees.
Districts also may have to tap into their reserve funds to make up the difference, said Warren Smith, School Board president of the Bethel School District in Pierce County.
“It’s like using your savings account to pay your bills,” Smith said.
Bethel’s budget cut for the 2017-18 school year would be about $10 million.
The 35 districts in the Puget Sound Educational District are in King and Pierce counties and on Bainbridge Island. About 40 percent of the state’s students — 416,000 — are in those districts.
Across the state, districts stand to lose nearly $500 million of their approved levy dollars if the levy issue isn’t addressed, according to the Washington Association of School Administrators.
“It’s a critical issue for all of us,” Welch said.