In the eyes of Hollywood, going over a cliff often signifies an adventurous, liberated, even heroic spirit. Whether Butch and Sundance leaping off a cliff or Thelma and Louise driving over the edge of a canyon in a 1966 Thunderbird, the characters are romanticized in their moment of freefall.
Such precipitous behavior might make memorable movies, but it’s no way to run a state government. It’s an especially bad gamble for those whose first duty is stewardship of K-12 public schools.
Washington leaders are driving headlong toward the brink of the so-called education “levy cliff,” a year after they missed their best shot to put it behind them.
Now they have another chance to detour around it, and they need to seize it quickly, although the end run that Senate Democrats tried to take around Republicans on Friday made us a bit queasy.
The “cliff” represents a steep drop in the amount of money the state allows most school districts to collect in property taxes. In 2010, the Legislature helped recession-battered districts by increasing their taxing limit from 24 percent to 28 percent of what they receive in state and federal funding.
Next January, the limit is set to revert to its previous level. In real levy dollars, the loss to school districts would total an estimated $358 million in 2018.
This would be OK if lawmakers had met their obligation to fully and equitably fund public schools, a directive from the state Supreme Court in the 2012 McCleary decision.
School levy reform is one of the linchpins of that ruling. Local communities shouldn’t have to rely on unsteady local property tax collections —and temporary fixes like the 2010 lid lift — to pay teacher and staff salaries.
Unfortunately, the curse of the unfulfilled McCleary mandate haunts Olympia, like a yawning chasm on the other side of the levy cliff.
The minimal progress made by elected officials over the last year doesn’t inspire confidence that they’ll finish their work before summer. Identifying potentially billions of dollars in additional revenue is downright hard. They’ve been hampered by the usual political disagreements, as well as a flu bug and a dizzying wave of turnover in the Senate.
Meantime, Washington’s 295 school districts, including 19 in Pierce County, are captive to a calendar that forces them to start writing their 2017-18 budgets now. They have no choice but to plan for the worst-case scenario, which means teacher pink slips hitting mailboxes in mid-May.
Lawmakers could spare everyone a lot of anxiety by simply removing the threat of the levy cliff immediately.
The Democrat-controlled House made this a top priority last week by passing House Bill 1059 in the first floor vote of the session. It would extend school districts’ current taxing authority to January 2019, when they presumably won’t need it anymore.
A handful of Pierce County Republicans stood tall for public schools by crossing over and voting yes; kudos to Dick Muri of Steilacoom, Melanie Stambaugh of Puyallup and Jesse Young of Gig Harbor.
But the overall House vote, 62-35, was far less commanding than the 91-7 vote a year ago. That doesn’t bode well for the bill’s prospects in the Senate, where GOP leaders wouldn’t even put it on the floor for a vote in 2016. Senate Democrats hatched a scheme to force a vote on Friday, only to be thwarted in their procedural maneuvering.
Why the Republican resistance? They claim that having the levy cliff looming in front of them is good, because it keeps the heat on the Legislature to finally resolve the long-term education problem.
We certainly don’t think HB1059 takes anyone off the hook. Frankly, it’s disappointing that senators have so little faith in their ability to reach consensus this year. One would think being held in contempt of court for more than two years would be motivation enough.
K-12 schools, on the other hand, can’t afford to wait for a McCleary breakthrough. The levy cliff has created a climate of fear among early-career educators, a blow to morale at a time when schools are already hammered by a national shortage of teachers and specialists.
If a high-demand teacher is told this spring that her job isn’t safe, why would she hang on until summer to find out that it is?
Tom Seigel, superintendent of Bethel Schools, warned a legislative committee this month that leaving the levy cliff in place would trigger a “cascade of events that no one wants.” At stake for his Spanaway-based district is $12 million, the rough equivalent of 126 teachers. For Tacoma Public Schools, the numbers in the loss column more than double.
On a positive note, Senate Republicans released their education budget Friday, and it includes a reprieve from the cliff — later, assuming the whole package is approved. Their budget contains elements worth recommending, but prolonging the insecurity of public school stakeholders is unnecessary.
For elected leaders with the best intentions, trying to solve the McCleary problem must feel at times like moving mountains. Moving a cliff should be an easy lift by comparison.