February 13 School Levies Come At An Interesting Time For Districts
On February 13, a dozen Spokane County school districts will ask their patrons to approve local maintenance and operations levies. Those dollars supplement what districts get from the state. It’s always a nail-biting exercise for administrators because, if voters say no, they’ve got to find a way to run their schools without that extra money.
Administrators have another reason to be nervous. Washington has just begun a school funding transition and districts are worried — at least for now — they may be shortchanged.
One recent evening, Mead Superintendent Tom Rockefeller and members of his administrative team were sitting in the library at Farwell Elementary School. It was an open house and they were waiting for people to come and ask questions about the district’s upcoming levy and bond issue.
Before people arrived, Rockefeller and his assistant superintendent, Wayne Leonard, sat in chairs meant for grade school children. And they wondered about the conversations legislators are having in Olympia about school funding. Leonard began to do the math.
“The current levy and levy equalization for this year in Mead School District totals about $26 million out of our $121 million budget,” he said.
Mead property owners now pay about $4 to the district for every thousand dollars of property valuation. Next year, the levy will decrease to about $1.50 per thousand. It means the district will receive only $15 million from local taxpayers.
“And so that $11 million gap was supposed to be made up with state funds. But from our calculations it doesn’t appear that we’re going to get that much extra money,” Leonard said.
“The problem is we’re just not totally sure how it’s all going to work yet. And I don’t think that the state completely understands. There’s a lot of details yet to be worked out,” Rockefeller said.
“I don’t know a single school district that says ’this is working out great for me',” said Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal.
Reykdal says legislators are fine tuning the new basic education funding formulas they developed last year. He believes some districts will wind up with more dollars than they had before. Others are going to get less. One possibility is to pass hold-harmless legislation; in other words, compensate districts that get squeezed by the new formulas.
“These larger questions, I think, are still very much up in the air for the last five weeks of session,” Reykdal said.
School administrators are paying close attention to the discussions. Meanwhile, life moves on. Many districts are moving forward this month with their levies for the next few years. The new state rules mean they’ll collect much less from local voters than they did before. In exchange, says Spokane Superintendent Shelley Redinger, they’ve handed over responsibility for funding many basic education programs to the state.
“Some examples are full-day kindergarten. Another is lowering class size, especially K-3, so hiring more teachers. Also, transportation. We were funding a lot of our transportation costs out of the local levy,” Redinger said.
So the idea is that local dollars pay for the extra things parents want for their children — music programs, sports, other extracurriculars — and not for the necessary stuff.
Administrators such as Spokane associate superintendent Mark Anderson not only hope voters will affirm the local levies, they’re also hoping legislators won’t make changes that mess up their plans.
“Will the state tweak anything about local levies after we’ve passed ours, that we wouldn’t have to go out for another levy to make up the difference because they’re not funding as much from the state,” Anderson said.
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal says all of the noise around school funding right now makes it important for districts to get their messaging to voters just right.
“Maybe the perception out there is ‘gosh, the state just solved this, so why am I paying for levies again?’" Reykdal said. "I think we all have to do a better job of reminding folks that there is no scenario where we don’t need levies, because the state only pays for the basics. And all of the enrichment activities that are critical for kids, those are still the obligation of local districts.”
In Spokane, the business community, including Greater Spokane Incorporated, is stepping in to endorse all of the local levies. Bruce Williams from GeoEngineers is the co-chair of GSI’s K-12 Roundtable Committee. He says education is the basic foundation of the local economy.
“It draws in talent. It provides opportunities for our students to enter the workplace. It provides construction jobs in our community," Williams said. "And it really is the centerpiece of our prosperity.”
Williams says he’s confident local voters will approve all of the local levies. Even if they do, Tom Rockefeller from Mead expects a bumpy ride for the school districts for the foreseeable future.
“There’s going to be some interesting challenges in the next few years until this gets leveled out,” he said.
School levies in Washington pass with a 50-percent-plus-one-vote majority. There are no voter validation requirements. Ballots have already been sent out.