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Legislative committee advances bill that would allow school districts to raise more local taxes

Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
The Legislative Building in Olympia

Lawmakers continue to wrestle with the new education-funding system they put in place in 2017, in which the Legislature increased the state property tax as a way to satisfy the long-running McCleary school-finance lawsuit. The approach limited how much districts can raise through local levies.

One bill addressing how much school districts can collect through local tax measures recently passed out of a state Senate education committee. School districts, including many in the Puget Sound region, have said lawmakers went too far in restricting their ability to raise local tax dollars.

Democratic Sen. Lisa Wellman, the bill's sponsor who chairs the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, said it would allow districts to choose whether to raise $3,500 per pupil or 20 percent of the district’s state and federal revenue.

“We’ve got 295 districts,” she said. “A one-size-fits-all is not working all that well.”

Under the system passed by lawmakers in 2017, districts’ local levies were capped at the lesser of $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value or $2,500 per student. And while the new funding system means that the state is investing billions of dollars more in public education, the restriction on local levies has hurt some districts more than others and helped create deficits for districts, such as Seattle and Tacoma.

Wellman said she thinks this will work for large and small school districts.

“There’s a lot of flexibility in the solution that we’ve put forward,” Wellman said.

But the bill has drawn criticism from Republican Sen. John Braun, one of the lawmakers who crafted the education-funding shift in 2017. He said allowing districts to raise more in local taxes will create inequities.

“I understand why school districts and the education establishment would want the Legislature to increase local-levy authority, especially after seeing some of the salary increases negotiated this past summer,” Braun said in a statement. “But going down the road laid out in this bill will get our state in trouble, because some districts are always able to take better advantage of local taxing authority than others, and sooner or later that’ll create the same conditions which led to the McCleary lawsuit.”