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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Dan Hansen: Despite state funding, local levies are vital to schools

Dan Hansen

I’m glad I started my Saturday by reading about State Supreme Court Justice Debra Stephens calling for civility in public discourse. It no doubt softened my reaction when I turned to the opinion page and found a factually inaccurate letter to the editor, urging voters to reject school levies.

I’ll try to respond in a manner that would meet the approval of both Justice Stephens and her father, Jim Williams, who for 32 years held the seat I now occupy on the West Valley school board.

Gentle reader, despite the content of the letter from Airway Heights, property taxes will hold steady or decrease for nearly all Eastern Washington residents – even if every levy passes on Tuesday. Nor did the state cancel existing school levies, as the writer alleged.

The confusion is understandable, since school funding is a complex subject that’s gotten more complex under a statewide funding formula adopted last year by the Legislature. Lawmakers were forced to come up with billions of dollars in additional funding to comply with a no-nonsense finding by Stephens and her fellow supremes that the state was ignoring its constitutional obligation to “amply” fund basic education, as defined by the Legislature itself.

As legislators were grumpily increasing the state’s portion of the property tax to meet their obligation, they reduced districts’ authority to collect voter-approved taxes.

Now, when your local schools place a levy on the ballot for education programs and operations, they’re limited to no more than $1.50 for every $1,000 in assessed property value, or $2,500 per student, whichever is less.

On its face, that makes sense: More money from the state, and less from local communities, should help even out disparities between districts. However, the results are uneven.

Sky-high property values mean some school districts can collect $2,500 per student without coming close to the buck-fifty limit. On Mercer Island, where the median-priced home is $1.44 million, the school district is seeking just 80 cents per thousand.

The math is entirely different in areas with more modestly priced properties. Most Eastern Washington school districts are requesting the full $1.50 without coming close to the per-student maximum. If a district’s voters approve a $1.50 levy, the state will chip in enough to make it an even $1,500 per student, but no more.

In West Valley, property owners will see a tax reduction because local levy collections will fall more than the state property tax increases. (The opposite is true in the Puget Sound region, where homeowners will see property tax increases.)

What’s good for taxpayers isn’t necessarily good for schools, and West Valley will have $1 million less for the 2018-19 school year. The revenue drop is not a crisis, but constituents will notice belt-tightening.

Your school district may also face revenue reductions. Or it might break even, or see an increase. The new funding formula is complicated and full of variables, and legislators are trying to work them out.

In the meantime, voter-approved levies remain vital to your local schools.

Dan Hansen is a member of the West Valley School Board, and serves on the legislative committee for the Washington State School Directors Association. He is a former Spokesman-Review reporter and editor, who once covered education.

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