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Democratic lawmaker says raising the cap on local school levies is still a priority

Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
In this Tuesday, March 12, 2019 photo, Washington state senators work on the Senate floor at the Capitol in Olympia.

Many school districts are planning substantial budget cuts for the fall, including Seattle, Olympia and Tacoma. At the same time, they're urging state lawmakers to raise the limit on levies so they can collect more in local property taxes.

Budget writing is taking center stage in Olympia now. Democratic Sen. Lisa Wellman said there's a lot of discussion about education spending, including increases for special education and funding for more school counselors and psychologists. Wellman, who is sponsoring a bill to raise the levy cap, said addressing local levies is a priority.

“We’re listening. We’re taking everyone’s concerns very seriously and we’re working the issue,” Wellman said. “The probability is that we will have something we will do addressing the levies.”

Her bill is considered necessary to implement the budget, she said. The measure would direct millions of dollars to help property-poor districts that can't raise much through local levies.

When school superintendents testified to lawmakers in favor of lifting the levy lid, some legislators pushed back, suggesting the districts created their own budget woes by approving generous pay increases for teachers and other staff.

Joel Aune, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, said that’s unfair. He said after lawmakers approved additional education funding last year to satisfy the McCleary school-funding lawsuit, the Washington Education Association took the position that the money was intended for educator compensation.

“School districts had a different interpretation of that, and we didn’t, frankly, get a lot of help from the Legislature in terms of providing clarification around that very question,” Aune said. “Consequently, we had the most contentious bargaining we’ve had arguably in this state’s history in K-12.”

About a third of school districts will have less money for basic operations this coming school year than they did in 2017, according to a WASA analysis.

Aune said the cap on local tax levies is one of the reasons for the shortfall. WASA represents superintendents who don't always see eye to eye on the levy issue, but overall they're in favor of a change, he said.

“We’re supportive of a modest increase in the levy, as long as it’s accompanied by an increase in levy equalization, so that our property-poor districts – those school districts that have less capacity to raise local money – will not be disadvantaged,” Aune said.

The administrators association has proposed that lawmakers adopt a stopgap measure to pay money to the districts that have lost funding under the new system. The group estimates that would cost $123 million dollars. 

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.