The Legislature raised a cap on local school taxes this spring, but local districts are wary about asking voters for more money.
A year ago, lawmakers reconfigured school funding to comply with a Supreme Court decision that the state must fully fund basic education. To come into compliance with the court’s McCleary decision, the Legislature increased state property tax levies for schools, and put a cap of $1.50 per $1,000 in property value on local taxes.
After hearing concern from districts about the changes, the Legislature last month raised the local cap to $2.50 per $1,000 property value, or $2,500 per student for schools in Yakima County, whichever was lower.
Since some districts already ran levies during the $1.50 cap period, bringing in the extra $1 would require them to run a supplemental levy — going back to voters and asking for more on top of what has already been approved.
“You told them it was going to be $1.50, and now you want another $1? I think that’s a harder sell,” Tom Fleming, chief financial officer for Educational Service District 105, a Yakima-based regional school district, said of the new flexibility offered to districts.
“Having multiple levies is hard,” he added. “That’s not to say that communities wouldn’t support it, but I think a lot of districts just feel like, ‘We said it was going to be $1.50. We want to stay at $1.50.’”
It could risk damaging community trust, he said.
District representatives or board members in West Valley, East Valley and Highland school districts — all of which ran levies at the $1.50 cap — have said they have no intent to run supplemental levies.
In Selah and Naches Valley districts, no supplemental levy is in the works — but the districts’ levy language has room that could allow for higher rates and additional funding.
Naches Valley was on a list from the Washington Association of School Administrators identifying 115 of 295 school districts statewide negatively impacted by the Legislature’s school funding fix. The district is facing $1.4 million in cuts on a budget of $17.6 million.
“For this coming school year, we were going to be having to cut about $1.4 million ... and with this levy money it means we just have to cut roughly $800,000,” Superintendent Duane Lyons said. “Those are far better numbers than they were a few weeks ago.”
Because voters approved a levy at $3.48, the levy will automatically adjust to the higher rate of $2.50 per $1,000 property value for the remainder of the levy period — still 98 cents less than voters approved. The levy expires at the end of 2020, at which point the district would likely seek another levy at the $2.50 rate, Lyons said.
In February, voters approved a request from the Selah School District that asked for $1.50 per $1,000 in value and a total budget of $3.1 million, said Chris Scacco, associate superintendent for district operations.
Now that the cap has been lifted by the state, the school board has the choice of maintaining the $1.50 rate, or rolling up the rate to meet the total budget voters approved, she said.
“They will make the final decision as to whether we only collect the amount that is at $1.50 (rate) or if they allow us to collect the amount approved by voters, which would be above the $1.50,” Scacco said. “But definitely I can say they’re not going to go out for a supplemental levy.”
The difference would be 20 to 30 cents more per $1,000 property value, she said — something that would become clear when assessed value rates for properties for the year are finalized.
“Selah was one of the local losers … when they capped the local levy at $1.50,” said Scacco. The change could help buffer the blow, but the district is still anticipating cutting $1.2 million out of its 2019-20 school budget, she said.
Selah previously had a local enrichment levy of $3.53 per $1,000 in value.
Employee wages are another budget factor. School districts statewide approved raises for school staff with the additional state funds.