School funding levies are on the ballot this month. Here’s why they matter

Tacoma Police officer Keith Miner chats with Tyrique Bell during pass time at Wilson High School, January 31, 2018. Resource officers such as Miner are funded by the local school levy.
Tacoma Police officer Keith Miner chats with Tyrique Bell during pass time at Wilson High School, January 31, 2018. Resource officers such as Miner are funded by the local school levy.

People in 13 Pierce County school districts will be voting on levies to continue funding for enrichment programs and capital projects at local schools in a special election on Feb. 13.

Taxpayers might think new state funding for schools, the so-called “McCleary fix” which dominated the end of the 2017 legislative session, means local levies are no longer needed. That presents a challenge for school district officials, who say they still need local levy money to pay for many services people expect schools to provide.

“For many years there has been a gap between what the state funds and what schools need to be able to operate and meet the needs of kids,” said Jeff Chamberlin, superintendent of the University Place School District. “The state has made changes … there is no question they have made some strides to close that gap, but there is still a significant gap in what they will pay for and what citizens expect schools will provide kids, and what kids need.”

The replacement levies on the special election ballot pay for programs like art, music, theater, athletics and other after-school activities. Money from the levies also goes toward school security, technology improvements and reducing class size. The levies also pay for textbooks, materials, access to technology and preschool, in some districts.

An explanation on the University Place district’s website sums it up this way:

“The state has increased funding for schools, but levies are still needed to fund about 10 percent of our current costs. Levies also are needed to pay for improvements to our facilities like HVAC systems and roofs. They also fund most of our technology costs. The new state funding plan has a specific provision for levies because legislators know that school districts will continue to need local funds.”

Of the 13 Pierce County districts in this election, a dozen districts are asking voters to continue funding for levies they approved four years ago. Yelm is asking voters to approve a bond to rebuild, renovate and expand school buildings to keep up with the number of students in a growing district, which has 1,300 more students than it did 15 years ago.

What local levy money covers changes from district to district, depending on schools’ needs.

“In districts like Tacoma where you have a high poverty rate, it means we need that levy — we still use it to pay teacher salaries,” said Tacoma Public Schools superintendent Carla Santorno. “We need to have family liaisons to talk to families. We want the public to know that some things that a rational person would consider basic education are considered enrichment under the state formula.”

Preschool is the best example, Santorno said, adding that the state does not consider it to be part of basic education.

State Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, told reporters last month that he would be encouraging the voters in his district to pass local levies.

“Yes, pass these levies, absolutely. If you want a well-balanced education, it’s more than just the curriculum that’s taught in the classroom. For many students, it’s important to have those enhanced services, whether it’s before-school or after-school programs, summer-school programs, sporting activities, clubs,” Sullivan said. “The cost of all of those are part of what’s passed in those levies.”

Not everyone supports the supplemental levies.

Betsy Tainer wrote the “statement against” in the Pierce County voters guide for the two levies Tacoma is proposing — a maintenance and operations levy and a technology levy.

“The state has stepped up and doubled school funding over the last ten years. Billions, to all school districts,” Tainer wrote. “This should have presented us with some relief in our levy funding. Vote No! Send this one back to the table.”

State Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, told reporters last month that voters should do their homework.

“It’s an opportunity for the school districts to be very proactive in showing and demonstrating what their true need is based upon full implementation of the McCleary plan, but for the voters themselves to ask the tough questions,” Moxee said. “Where is this money going? Is it being used appropriately for enrichment purposes?”

Changing levies

The Legislature has struggled for years to respond to the state Supreme Court’s landmark 2012 education case known as McCleary, in which the court said the state was not fully funding the school system as required by the state constitution. That includes taking on the full cost of teacher salaries. At the end of the 2017 session, lawmakers approved about $7 billion in new state spending on K-12 schools over four years and decided to raise the statewide property tax to pay for it.

At the same time, the plan limited how much money districts can raise through their local levies and says the money can't be used to pay for basic education costs, such as teacher salaries. Starting in 2019, local levies will be capped at either $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value or $2,500 per student, whichever is lower.

That would mean a lower property-tax bill for many taxpayers.

Some superintendents say it also would leave them with a funding gap. Tacoma Public Schools would go from getting about $86 million from its local levies to $38 million under the new formula, Santorno said. That’s assuming voters pass the local levies.

She and other district superintendents have been testifying in front of the Legislature this session asking for permission to ask voters for the $2,500 per student, regardless of whether the $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value would result in a lower amount collected. Under the $2,500 per student model, Tacoma would collect about $72 million from local levies.

“What we know is if we ask for $2,500, it’ll still keep taxes lower than what they are currently,” Santorno said. “Tacoma is not the only district that was hurt by that formula, and we’re in a strange bubble because we’re a big city, big school district but have a high poverty rate. So it means that we need more levy money to cover those strategies, like pre-K, that are going to help our students.”

In the Feb. 13 election, Tacoma is asking voters for the equivalent of $2,500 per student, which works out to $3.52 per $1,000 of assessed value. It’s higher than the $1.50 the state has allowed for, but lower than the $4.59 per $1,000 of assessed value that Tacoma taxpayers are already paying for the school levy.

If voters approve the levy and the state rejects Tacoma’s effort to get $2,500 per student instead of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, the district would only collect up to the $38 million allowed, Santorno said.

Other high-poverty districts like Franklin Pierce are in the same boat with a gap in funding, superintendent Frank Hewins said.

“We still have to subsidize some basic-education programs such as special education, transitional bilingual programs. They’re not fully funded. Transportation is not fully funded,” Hewins said. “I agree the formula is fully-funded, but the formula doesn’t fully fund the actual cost.”

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud

Districts with school levies on the ballot Feb. 13

  • Steilacoom Historical School District
  • Yelm Community Schools
  • Puyallup School District
  • Tacoma Public Schools
  • University Place School District
  • Sumner School District
  • Dieringer School District
  • Orting School District
  • Franklin Pierce Schools
  • Bethel School District
  • Eatonville School District
  • White River School District
  • Fife School District