Public school districts are asking voters to approve billions of dollars in local property-tax levies to pay for things like school nurses and counselors, computers, special education, athletic programs and building projects.
Ten years ago Jan. 5, the state Supreme Court ruled the Washington Legislature violated its constitution by underfunding basic education, prompting the state to reform the finance system and invest more in education. In 2018, the high court declared lawmakers had fully implemented its new school funding plan and ended its oversight.
Yet, state lawmakers continue to shirk their duty to amply fund the state’s public school system. Local levies, under the new financing regime, were intended only for “extras” not basic education. Once again, school districts are using these tax tools to pay for learning essentials. Voters should carefully consider these measures and vote in the Feb. 8 special election.
Until lawmakers fix Washington’s inequitable school funding system, local taxpayers will continue to be asked to fill the gaps between resources and needs.
Senate Republican Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, and Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, have filed a bill that seeks to shift the balance. Senate Bill 5922 would invest an additional $3.5 billion in schools and cap local property tax levies for education at $1.50 per $1,000 assessed property valuation. The current cap is $2.50 per $1,000.
As Mullet wrote in a statement announcing the proposal, “Asking school districts to rely on local tax levies, which are inherently inequitable, is not something we can allow to happen again.”
SB 5922 should be given a hearing, even in this short session. Lawmakers who don’t agree with Braun and Mullet’s plan should step up with their own ideas for fixing Washington’s broken school-funding system. Relying on local levies for basics like special education and computers shortchanges schools that can’t draw on a wealthy local property tax base. It’s a shortsighted fix that masks state lawmakers’ failure to uphold their constitutional duty to amply fund K-12 education.
In the Seattle School District, Proposition No. 1 would replace an expiring levy that funds educational programs and operations, including more than half the district’s special education budget, 59 of the district’s 68 school nurses, arts and other extracurricular programs, according to district figures. The levy, about $0.74 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2023 and $0.75 in 2024-25, would raise $646.8 million in three years. That works out to $555 in the first year’s collections on a $750,000 home.
Seattle schools’ Proposition No. 2 would replace the expiring Buildings, Technology and Academics/Athletics Capital Levy to fund earthquake and safety projects, technology infrastructure and athletic upgrades like new grandstands at Memorial Stadium. It would raise $783 million over six years through a levy of $0.47 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2023, reduced to about $0.37 per $1,000 by 2028. That adds up to $352.50 in the first year for a $750,000 property.
In Lake Washington, which has two replacement levy proposals and a new construction levy on the ballot, levy revenues make up 14% of the district’s operating budget. Local property taxes pay for 70% of the district’s school nurses and nearly 90% of its technology budget, according to the district.
Also on the ballot in King County are levy requests in Bellevue, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Fife, Kent, Mercer Island, Northshore, Renton, Riverview, Shoreline, Snoqualmie and Vashon school districts. All Snohomish County school districts except Arlington and Lakewood have made at least one levy request.
Moving forward, lawmakers must identify more stable and equitable funding.
As Mindy Lincicome, chairwoman of the Lake Washington Citizens Levy Committee, said: “I don’t know how you could have education today without technology.”
Or sufficient school counselors. Or custodians. Or science equipment. Or safe buildings. Or any of the other essentials that state lawmakers have largely left in districts’ hands.