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WA School Districts Ask Voters To Support Local Levies After State Funding Changes

Douglas Boyles
Bethel School District
The Bethel School District says it needs local levy dollars to help cover the cost of transporting students.

The Feb. 13 special election will be a test of voters' support for local school levies and bond measures in the wake of major changes to the way the state funds public education. Around the Puget Sound region, dozens of school districts are asking people to support local property tax measures.

Even though the legislature passed a school funding plan, school districts say it doesn’t cover everything. There’s still a need for local levies, even though legislators put a cap on the amount districts can raise through local property taxes.

The Bethel School District in southeast Pierce County is asking voters to renew an educational programs and operations levy. It’s a much smaller amount this time because of the limit set by the state.

Tom Seigel, superintendent of the Bethel district, said the district needs the levy because the way the state pays for things such as transportation and special education is outdated.

“[The levy] still is used to pay the basic stuff because the state has still not adequately covered the actual cost of basic education because they’re using antiquated, inaccurate formulas that need to be updated to reflect reality,” Seigel said.

Bethel also has a technology levy on the ballot and a bond measure to build more schools and modernize others. Seigel said the district is severely overcrowded.

A similar bond failed two years ago. But Seigel said he’s hopeful voters will be supportive this time because, with the change in state funding, homeowners in the Bethel district will see their tax bills go down next year even if they pass all three measures.

“There is going to be a decrease in taxes in this area because the state is going to share the wealth throughout the entire state and our taxpayers are going to benefit as a result,” Seigel said.

Even as districts ask voters to weigh in on local property taxes next month, the rules could still change again. The state Superintendent of Public Instruction has proposed a bill this legislative session that would raise the cap on local property tax measures.

With so many changes, districts faced a lot of complicated decisions as they crafted their local property tax measures.

The Highline school district in south King County has put a replacement educational programs and operations levy on the ballot that would raise a maximum of $198 million over four years.

“We debated going (with) a one-year levy till things became more clear, a two-year levy, a three or a four. We ended up going with a four just because there’s a cost in running a levy and we don’t want to continually be going back to our taxpayers,” said Duggan Harman, chief of staff and finance for the Highline district. 

Highline will raise less money with this replacement levy because of the cap set by the state. Harman said legislators last year made what he calls a down payment on paying for basic education, but haven’t fully funded it.

Highline will use local levy dollars to pay for special education costs not covered by the state. The district will also use levy revenue to pay for extra nurses, school counselors and social workers. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.