As ballots are mailed out for a series of school levy votes in Clark County, there is one essential bit of information voters should keep in mind: The Legislature has not yet decided how to pay for K-12 public education in the state.
Yes, there has been much discussion about the issue since the state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that lawmakers were not living up to their constitutionally defined “paramount duty.” And, yes, the Legislature has made strides in paying for schools, adding more than $2 billion per biennium to education funding. But school districts still rely upon local levies to bridge the gap between the money they receive from the state and the money they require to pay for staff and for educational programs.
That is the basic issue behind the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCleary v. Washington. The court determined that lawmakers had not adequately funded schools, which over the years led districts to depend upon levies assessed according to property values. In Clark County, between 18 percent and 24 percent of a district’s budget is provided by local levies, with the state providing a bulk of the remaining funding and federal money providing a small portion.
That leaves districts in a tenuous position in the coming weeks. Six local districts — Evergreen, Green Mountain, Hockinson, La Center, Ridgefield, and Vancouver — are going before voters to ask that current levies be continued, and ballots are due Feb. 9. In Evergreen Public Schools, for example, administrators are requesting a three-year replacement levy totaling $154.5 million for maintenance and operations. This does not represent a new expense for taxpayers, but an extension of what they already are paying.
Camas is the only local district asking for new money, with a $120 million bond on the ballot. That would pay for a smaller, standalone high school on the Camas High School campus, a new Lacamas Heights Elementary School, and other projects. Details can be found at http://www.camas.wednet.edu/2016bond/.
For the other districts, however, the concern is that confusion among voters could place passage of the levies in doubt. While the Supreme Court ruled four years ago that the Legislature must come up with funding to replace local levies, lawmakers have been slow to act. Last year, the court ruled that legislators have been in contempt of court by not adequately meeting the mandate, and the justices have issued a $100,000-a-day fine until the Legislature meets its obligation.
Most recently, lawmakers undertook action to assess how much money would be required to fund schools and reduce the reliance upon levies. “You hear $2.8 billion and you’ll hear $7 billion, and we have no idea and it really matters,” state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, told The Columbian. Rivers also noted the contentiousness of the issue: “There are some legislators who say, ‘The Supreme Court is not the boss of me and I won’t support anything.’ … Part of me agrees, but this doesn’t mean we don’t have a serious problem to address.”
Decisions about how much money is needed should have been made four years ago in the wake of the McCleary ruling, and the delay has left school districts in the lurch. That leaves it to voters once again to provide funding that ensures adequate schools. Legislators haven’t been doing their job, but that doesn’t mean voters should ignore their paramount duty when it comes to approving school levies.