Schools wary of new state budget

Ambiguity remains about impact on taxpayers, funding

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

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A week-and-a-half after the state Legislature adopted a budget with the goal of fully funding education, there remains ambiguity about what the decision will mean for taxpayers.

Initial analysis of the state budget indicates some districts — including all Clark County districts — could see property tax increases from current policy. But lawmakers say those numbers are inflated, and some taxpayers could even see a decrease.

The Department of Revenue is slated to release additional analysis of how the budget deal will affect property taxes this week, Superintendent of Public Instruction spokesman Nathan Olson said Tuesday.

The budget deal, which narrowly prevented a state shutdown when it became law on June 30, puts an additional $5.6 billion into schools statewide over the next four years. In 2012, under the McCleary decision, the state Supreme Court ruled the state was failing its constitutional duty to fully fund kindergarten through 12th grade education.

The funding increase will be paid for with new revenue from a so-called levy swap — an increase in the state schools levy to $2.70 per thousand in assessed property value, 72 cents more than Clark County tax payers paid this year, while local levy rates are lowered and capped at $1.50 per thousand.

But the local cap doesn’t take effect until 2019, meaning all Clark County taxpayers are expected to see a bump in their property tax bill next year when the state levy increase takes effect. An analysis by the Office of Public Research indicates Clark County levy rates will increase by 91 cents per thousand in 2018, then drop in 2019 — though some districts could still see an increase over current taxing levels.

An Evergreen Public Schools homeowner in a median-priced home valued at $244,000, for example, could see taxes increase by $210, according to Office of Public Research documentation. Once the levy swap goes into effect in 2019, those taxes will drop to $100 below the current bill.

A Camas School District homeowner in a median-priced home valued at $378,300, however, could see their property tax bill increase by $330, then drop, but still be $100 more than they currently pay.

But Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said those numbers are based on a “worst-case scenario” and could be lower. Not all districts will necessarily take their full levy amount, she said.

“Basically the only people who are going to see a significant increase are those who live in million-dollar homes in the Puget Sound area,” said Rivers, who helped negotiate the plan.

Currently, all Clark County districts collect more than $1.50 per thousand for their voter-approved maintenance and operations levies, but local dollars will be re-branded as enrichment levies. Those future dollars can only be used for extracurricular activities, extended school days, additional courses, early learning and other state-approved activities.

And the impacts in the Seattle area Rivers suggested may also be inflated. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, was quoted by The Seattle Times last week as saying that the owners of a median-valued home in Seattle could pay $240 in new taxes in 2018, not the $460 projected, due to local levy dollars scheduled to be phased out.

There are unlikely to be significant changes in school budgets — except for a 2.3 percent cost-of-living raise for teachers — this upcoming school year, but Battle Ground Public Schools Superintendent Mark Ross said next year’s budget hearings, when the levy swap goes into effect, are likely to be more complicated.

Ross said he’s “cautiously optimistic” the budget deal will support student learning, but said it’s hard to know what the long-term impact will be until a salary schedule is released. Ross noted that about 35 percent of the district’s employees’ salaries are funded by local levy dollars. Those local dollars cover things like additional nurses, school counselors and teachers above what the state funds. It’s unclear what tax shifts could mean for those funding priorities in the future.

“There’s obviously a lot of questions and not right now a whole lot of answers as we look toward 2018,” Ross said. “We’re still trying to figure out what it means.”