November 28, 2012 in Opinion

Editorial: Schools do well to turn down extra tax dollars

 

Back on Valentine’s Day, voters showed plenty of love when they passed a ballot measure that allowed local school districts to collect more money than usual if the state Legislature cut education funding. The feared cut never happened, and now Spokane Public Schools, Central Valley, East Valley, West Valley and Mead school districts look like they’re planning on forgoing the extra money, according to an article in The Spokesman-Review.

If they follow through, they’ll show cynics that government entities can be trusted.

Because districts have endured so many budget cuts over the past decade, it’s probably tempting to grab some extra cash, but doing so would cripple the carefully constructed relationship school districts have developed with voters. Plus, critics would have more ammunition with which to shoot down future education requests.

To review, Gov. Chris Gregoire placed a target on levy equalization funding last fall as the state looked for $2 billion in budget cuts. The governor even dropped in on an economics class at Shadle Park High School to explain the dilemma. She said she hated to cut education but she had to “go where there’s lots of money.”

One of her destinations was property-poor school districts, such as Spokane’s, that rely on the state to even out funding among districts. A cut in levy equalization funds would’ve cost local districts millions of dollars, because of the region’s relatively low property values. The final decision would come from the Legislature in the spring, but districts needed to write budgets in the meantime. Spokane Public Schools, for example, planned on getting only 65 percent of levy equalization funding.

But the districts also came up with a plan for a just-in-case levy request that was placed on the February ballot. Officials said if the state didn’t cut funding, they wouldn’t follow through with an extra request from local property owners. As it turned out, the Legislature was able to pass a balanced budget without cutting that funding stream. Local districts will probably have to adjust property tax rates to offset declining values, but the goal remains collecting the same amount of revenue as the previous year.

(In a related matter, state lawmakers in both parties are examining whether to implement a revenue-neutral “levy swap” in which local school levy capacity is shifted to the state property tax to comply with a state Supreme Court ruling that says local levies are being overused. Unfortunately, newly elected Gov. Jay Inslee muddied the waters by running misleading campaign ads that pegged this as a tax increase, and blamed it on his opponent, Rob McKenna.)

Voters have demonstrated that they will agree to tax increases if government agencies can tell a credible story and outline in detail where money will be spent. This has been the hallmark of all successful levy campaigns. Beyond schools, it’s also why voters agreed to the $117 million street repair bond.

The districts were able to get this contingency levy passed, because they had built a sturdy foundation of good will. In resisting the money, they will reinforce the public’s trust.

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