This is the first election since legislators came up with a plan that they say fully funds basic education through, in part, an increase in the statewide property tax.
In King County alone, 16 school districts are asking voters in this month’s special election to approve levy measures that would generate more than $1 billion in revenue over four years, starting in 2019.
This is the first election since legislators came up with a plan that they say fully funds basic education as required by the state Supreme Court ruling known as the McCleary decision. That plan includes an increase in the statewide property tax. Across King County, those property taxes will increase about 17 percent on average this year, according to the King County Assessor’s Office. Ballots in the Feb. 13 election are due Tuesday.
But many districts say they still need money generated from local “enrichment” levies to cover basic education costs, like teacher salaries, to get through a complex and fluid period of funding changes. Many of the levies on the ballot would replace existing ones, which used to be called maintenance-and-operations levies.
Opponents say the “enrichment” levy measures are a double tax for residents who will be paying more in state property taxes and not receive credit for that when paying school-district levy taxes.
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Either way, it’s a challenging period for school districts — and voters, said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.
“It’s an incredibly tenuous time, because we are going through the largest structural reform of local and state education finance in generations,” he said.
In several districts across the region, the levy rate will decrease from past funding cycles, because the Legislature put a cap on enrichment-levy rates — either $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed home value or a rate that generates $2,500, whichever is lower — starting in 2019.
Northshore’s proposed levy rate, for example, is $1.50, a decrease from the rate of $1.93 for the levy it would replace. That levy would generate $234 million over the next four years. But the district is also telling voters that the maximum rate would be $1.82, in the event that the Legislature changes the law on what districts can collect, said Northshore School Board Member Amy Cast.
The levy would cover about 20 percent of the district’s budget for educational programs, services and daily operations. About 700 more students came to Northshore this year, Cast said, so some of the money would go toward district growth. It would also go toward funding additional credits for high-school students, as required for the class of 2019 and beyond. The district also has a $63 million technology levy and a $275 million capital-projects bond.
Meanwhile, the state property taxes will increase. Within Northshore, those taxes will be increasing by at least 11 percent for homeowners, according to the King County Assessor’s Office. Cast said there’s historically been uncertainty about whether a levy will pass, and that’s true this year, too.
“It’s a new landscape,” she said. “Yes, we worry, but this is the plan that matches what our community has asked for.”
Several district officials across the region described an election cycle that’s been hard to convey to voters. As a former superintendent for the Mercer Island and Cascade school districts, Bill Keim is glad he “doesn’t have to be in the middle of all this,” the executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) said.
“For districts whose levies are expiring, it’s ‘get it approved to the best of our ability, or have nothing,’” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
In Edmonds, where levies have passed for several decades, some residents are concerned about the affordability of the proposed measure, coupled with the property taxes amid rising home prices. The replacement levy would generate about $62.75 million per year and go toward hiring more teachers for smaller class sizes, as well as special-education programs and security.
It’s similar to what the district has asked for before, said spokeswoman Debbie Joyce Jakala, but this year “everything is so fluid and not necessarily fine-turned with the state.”
Edmonds resident Tom Nicholson said he’ll be voting against the measure because he thinks the state funding is enough and the levy would be too much for residents already facing a housing crunch.
“It was a shocking experience to go to the School Board meeting and sense a disconnect with the board members about the reality of what they are proposing and what is being faced by the residents,” he said.
In King County, Carnation residents will face the highest increase, about 31 percent, in state property taxes. Meanwhile, the Riverview School District, which serves Carnation students, has three levies on the ballot. The four-year replacement levy would generate about $8 million each year and make up an 18 percent gap between what the state provides and what Riverview provides for basic education, said Ruby Perez, the district’s business and operations director.
“What we really need as a district and what the state is funding are two totally different things,” she said. “…We’re going to collect whatever the state says we can collect.”
Perez and Riverview Superintendent Anthony Smith acknowledged that that could change, even after the measures are approved.
Their job, Smith said, is to continue the basic services they provide to students. But, he added, “a lot of the rulebook hasn’t been written yet.”