School Levies: A Necessary Evil?
It’s School Levy time again, and many school districts in our area―including Nine Mile Falls and Deer Park, as well as 12 others in Spokane County― will have levies on the February 14 ballot. To those people who are not familiar with how education funding works, it is difficult to understand why there is a constant need for special levies and bonds to pay for basic education, school construction and repairs. After all, the state collects a variety of fees and taxes from all its citizens, so why can’t that money fully fund education? While the Washington State constitution mandates “ample provision for the education of all students within its borders,” that is clearly not happening in the real world.
Funding for public schools competes with all other categories within the state’s operating budget. With shrinking state revenues due to the sluggish economy, the budgeting process has become a competitive nightmare. Each budget category is pitted against the others for a bigger piece of a smaller revenue pie, and basic education has been getting the short end of the stick for the past several years. The result is that K-12 education has absorbed more than $1 billion in cuts since 2009, and since 2007, the Nine Mile Falls School District alone has lost about $2,000,000 in state support and other revenue sources.
Property Tax is the primary funding source for Washington’s public schools. Two types of property Tax levies support the state school system: the state School Levy paid by all Washington property owners for public schools, and special levies, such as the proposed Nine Mile Falls and Deer Park levies, approved by voters for a specific school district. Revenues from these special levies can only be used for that specific school district, while all funds collected from the state property Tax levy are deposited into the state’s general fund for distribution to all school districts throughout Washington based on a set formula. Unfortunately, Washington lawmakers have been busy the past few years changing funding formulas in an effort to justify cuts to public school funding.
School districts find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, as the state mandates, for example, that students must have a specified number of credits in different fields in order to obtain a high school diploma, yet funds are not guaranteed nor fully provided to the districts to help them deliver these educational requirements. Local communities are expected to step up to the plate and support school levies to fund those basic needs and unfunded mandates not met by the state.
Levy funds now account for a significant portion of most districts’ operating budget, often representing over 20%. These local levy dollars are, by law, only supposed to be used for “enhancements” beyond basic education, but most school districts don’t have any other options and are using levy revenue to make up the difference between what the state pays and what it actually costs to operate their schools. Obviously a levy failure resulting in a 20% or more budget reduction would be catastrophic to the quality of education a district could provide.
The reality is that the cost of education is going up just like everything else. But unfortunately state funding is declining and that puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of local taxpayers to fill the gap through levies.
Whether our nearby communities will support their local levy remains to be seen. Given the current economic climate, undoubtedly each voter will be Wrestling with the decision, trying to determine whether the levy is a wise investment in the community’s future, or an unnecessary expense. “Each community has its own unique culture. They wrap their arms around their schools in their own way,” observed Shauna Ferguson, business manager for the Deer Park School District. “They have different values and expect different things, and the local levies reflect those and the costs to support them,” she concluded.
Perhaps before filling out that ballot, each voter should be asking themselves, “What do I expect from my schools, and can they meet my expectations without this levy?”