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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Timing a key to avoid layoff notices for some Washington school districts

OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee and four school superintendents on Feb. 21, 2017, urge the Legislature to pass a bill postponing a scheduled drop in money for public schools. Behind Inslee, from left, are Sunnyside School Superintendent Kevin McKay, Federal Way Superintendent Tammy Campbell, Lake Washington Superintendent Traci Pierce and Seattle Superintendent Larry Nyland. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Although Washington lawmakers are expected eventually to approve a budget that will spend billions more on education, some public school officials said they may have to write plans for the 2017-18 school year that cut spending and notify some teachers they could be laid off.

The problem revolves around timing: Some school districts are already preparing their budgets for the coming year, but the Legislature may be months away from a deal on the court-ordered overhaul of the way the state raises money and pays for public education.

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Wednesday on one set of reforms, which is significantly different than a plan that Senate Republicans moved through that chamber late last month.

With months of negotiations ahead, Gov. Jay Inslee and some Democratic lawmakers say the Legislature should make an immediate change in state law to guarantee districts won’t have less money from property taxes than they have this year. They want the Senate to pass a separate bill already approved by the House that provides a one-year delay to a scheduled reduction in most districts’ levy rates.

But Republicans argue that the threat of this drop in property tax money, generally called the “levy cliff,” is needed to make sure the Legislature follows through on the last round of changes to the school system that were ordered by the state Supreme Court in 2012.

Without the pressure of the levy cliff, lawmakers might “take their foot off the gas pedal as far as solving the actual problem,” House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said Monday.

“The bill just postpones the problem,” Kristiansen said of the one-year delay. “It just kicks the can down the road. Why would we do that?”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, agreed: “I don’t think we’ve come to the levy cliff yet.”

At a press conference attended by four school superintendents Tuesday, Inslee scoffed at the idea the Legislature needs more pressure to reach a deal on school reform. The state is already under a contempt order from the court, which comes with a $100,000-per-day penalty. The Legislature hasn’t actually set aside money for the fine, or created a fund to hold it, but the Office of Financial Management does keep track of the amount owed, now about $56 million.

“How much more pressure do you need?” Inslee asked at the press conference. “That dog won’t hunt.”

School superintendents from Seattle, Federal Way, Lake Washington and Sunnyside said they were faced with the prospect of writing two budgets – one that assumes it will have the money provided by the extra property taxing authority, whether it comes from the local levy or state taxes; and one without the money that extra authority provides. The amount varies around the state, with Seatte Superintendent Larry Nyland estimating the latter budget will be about $30 million lower and Sunnyside Superintendent Kevin McKay saying his would be about $2 million less.

If the Legislature doesn’t pass an extension to the levy cliff by next Tuesday, Seattle Public Schools must by law begin the process of determining which teachers would get layoff notices, Nyland said. Sunnyside would start that process sometime in mid-March.

Spokane Public Schools will not write two budgets while it waits to see how the Legislature will overhaul school policy, Superintendent Shelley Redinger said. Instead it will write one budget and if the district’s levy authority drops without an increase from the state, it will pay for the difference out of reserves rather than notify teachers of possible layoffs.

But that’s not the ideal situation, Redinger added.

Medical Lake School Superintendent Timothy Ames said that district hasn’t reached the point of having to write two budgets yet, and its property tax levy is small enough part of its total revenue it can afford to watch, and wait. They’ll have to know about layoffs by May 1, to send out notices by May 15.

“We’re small enough to respond quickly,” Ames said. Legislators have given the district practice at that in recent years because they’ve regularly needed extra time to agree to the state budget that covers public schools.