Legislature’s ‘levy fix’ a relief for Tacoma schools, but cuts still coming

The state Legislature passed a bill late Sunday that increases the amount of levy funding school districts across the state are able to collect from local property taxes.

For Tacoma Public Schools, that means that starting in January 2020 the district can collect the full amount voters approved in February 2018. That adds up to about $71 million, district CFO Rosalind Medina told The News Tribune on Monday.

Under previous law passed just last year, the district was capped at collecting $43 million in levy funding. That led to a $30 million budget deficit and the threat of layoffs.

The extra funding means fewer staff members will face layoffs next school year.

“We still are going to face a deficit, but having the levy funding come in in 2020 … That is going to help us a lot,” Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno said.

The Puyallup School District, facing a $13.2 million budget deficit next school year, also can increase its local funding from $27 million to $33 million, according to a district-by-district breakdown provided by the state Senate.

For the next fiscal year, that’s only about a $1 million increase, said district CFO Corine Pennington. The Puyallup district still is determining the impacts of the changes, Puyallup Superintendent Tim Yeomans said.

“We want to be extremely respectful of our local voters and local taxpayers,” Yeomans told The News Tribune on Monday.

Senate Bill 5313, which was passed by both the House and Senate, allows districts to collect funding for non-basic education or enrichment programs such as athletic teams, debate clubs, summer learning programs, field trips, mentoring and teacher training, according to Senator Lisa Wellman, sponsor of the bill.

“This bill would allow voters and school districts to fund enrichment programs that fall outside basic education,” Wellman said in a press release. “It allows communities to decide what’s important to them and act accordingly.”

The bill also ensures that enrichment levies are used only for enrichment activities, Wellman said, by “directing the state auditor to review local revenue expenditures. A school district found to have used levy funds for non-enrichment activities would see its levy rates reduced for the following year in an amount equal to the amount spent improperly.”

Some legislators voiced concern about the bill’s impact to taxpayers.

“I believe that allowing levies to become very disparate across the state, you risk having an un-uniform system of education as well,” Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said during House floor debate Sunday.

Tacoma Public Schools officials say its $30 million deficit for the 2019-20 school year was due to changes implemented by the state Legislature last year that capped how much levy funding the district can collect. Those changes came as lawmakers worked to comply with a state Supreme Court ruling called McCleary, which said the Legislature needed to fully fund basic education across the state.

That fix included increasing the statewide property tax to raise money, but it also capped the amount local districts could levy directly from property owners within their boundaries.

Many districts complained the McCleary fix and subsequent teacher salary increases left them with deficits that could be cured only with staffing cuts.

About $22 million of Tacoma’s 2019-20 deficit was levy loss, Medina said. Under the new policy, she estimates that would decrease to $8.5 million.

Previously, Tacoma could collect $1.50 per $1,000 assessed value. Now, it can collect the lesser of $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value or $2,500 per pupil, as can other districts with fewer than 40,000 students.

“This is really restoring that funding back up,” Medina said.

TPS cut 43 administrative positions earlier this school year to pay for teacher salary increases and were facing cuts district-wide next year, including teacher positions.

Those cuts still loom.

“The first part of this coming school year there’s a dip in revenue,” Tacoma Public Schools spokeswoman Kathryn McCarthy said. “... We still do anticipate having to make some reductions.”

State law requires certificated staff, which includes teachers, to be notified by May 15 if they will no longer have a job with the district.

Santorno said the Tacoma community came together to support the passage of the bill.

“I am totally grateful for all the support that we had,” she said. “That truly made a difference.”

Gov. Jay Inslee said at a press conference Monday he supported the version of the levy-lid bill the Legislature passed.

Asked if he supports allowing charter schools to receive local assistance effort funds from the state — which was removed from the bill — Inslee didn’t directly answer.

“I’m very pleased with the way the levy bill worked out. It’s because of the diligent work by the legislators and the fact that they agreed with the governor, and that’s always awesome,” Inslee said.

Staff writer James Drew contributed to this report.