Published Online: February 15, 2010

Wash. House Lets Schools Raise More Through Levies

The Washington state House on Saturday approved a measure that lets cash-strapped school districts ask voters for additional money.

On a 55-41 vote, the House passed the measureRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader lifting the levy lid that currently limits how much school districts can seek, and how often, from 2011 to 2017. The measure now heads to the Senate for further consideration.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has promised help to struggling school districts, and the bill would help them make up for school budget shortfalls. The bill would allow school districts to ask for more money and would let them go back to the voters for more money in the middle of a levy cycle.

"I wish we had better state funding. I wish we had the option to do that," said Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia. "But we cannot ignore the needs of our local schools. We can give them this extra capacity."

The levy lid law took effect in 1979 and sought to limit levy revenue to 10 percent of a school district's state basic education allocation. It had a grandfather clause, however, and allowed some districts to exceed the 10 percent limit.

Under current law, most districts may bring up 24 percent of their budget through levies, although some are grandfathered at as much as 33.9 percent of their budget. The bill passed Saturday would raise the levy lid by 4 percentage points, from 24 to 28 percent, plus districts grandfathered in at higher rates can also raise their levies by 4 percent.

The bill also would increase the levy equalization rate from 12 percent to 14 percent. This is the amount the property tax poor districts get from the state in addition to what they can raise locally.

Republicans argued that the measure would create greater disparities between rich and property-poor school districts.

"We will create an inadequate, unjust education system that creates a huge divide between the haves and the have nots," said Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee.

The debate comes in the wake of a ruling by King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick, who found that the state is violating its constitutional duty to fully pay for basic education.

Erlick acknowledged the state's efforts at reforming the way it pays for education and encouraged lawmakers to continue that. But he said the state relies too heavily on local levies to pay for education and will not meet its constitutional duty until it stops doing that.

Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way, cited that ruling, saying that if the judge says the state is using the levies in an unconstitutional manner, lawmakers shouldn't then turn around and increase levies.

"That, for me, doesn't pass the straight face test," he said.

Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said that parents want lawmakers to give their schools options.

"They're not caught up in the politics of levies," she said. "They want schools funded for their kids."

Earlier this week, school levy elections across the state were overwhelmingly supported by voters. More than 160 school districts asked voters to approve a total of $4.6 billion in maintenance and operation levies on Tuesday.

Eleven districts had bond issues on the ballot, four districts asked for transportation funds, and another 32 districts asked voters to approve $835 million in capital levies. Nearly all the maintenance and operation levies appeared to be passing, but some districts seeking approval to sell bonds or approval for levies to construct new buildings were unsure of passage. The election results will be certified Feb. 24.

Also Saturday, the House, on a 73-23 vote, pass a school reform bill from the Quality Education Council, the group assigned by the Legislature to manage the process of reforming the way Washington pays for K-12 education.

The measure defines what it takes to run a prototypical school, ranging from teacher-student ratios to money for maintenance and supplies. The bill would set a goal of decreasing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to 15 students by the 2015-16 school year. It would require all-day kindergarten across the state by 2017-18. And it would move up the schedule for the state paying for all school transportation costs to 2011.

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