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News / Clark County News

Legislature budget boosts education

Bill lifts local levy lid; districts to discuss increase in funding

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter, and
Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer
Published: April 29, 2019, 10:03pm

Budget-strapped school districts in Clark County on Monday said they’d need more time to suss out how the Legislature’s late-adopted operating budget will affect their finances. But one thing seems certain: There will be a lot more money available for education.

And in the case of Vancouver and Evergreen public schools, it only took 13 lines of legislation to make it happen.

A significantly amended version of Senate Bill 5313, which became something of a political football over the course of the legislative session, was approved by lawmakers late Sunday night. The bill lifts the cap on local school levies to $2.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value, up from the $1.50 per $1,000 legislators adopted two years ago.

“Local communities should be able to decide what’s important to them when it comes to enrichment programs that fall outside the realm of basic education,” primary sponsor Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, said in a statement. “And that’s what this bill allows. We brought the levy cap down too hard in 2017, and it’s time to make adjustments.”

How they voted

Lawmakers’ votes on Senate Bill 5313:

17th District

Sen. Lynda Wilson (R): No.

Rep. Vicki Kraft (R): No.

Rep. Paul Harris (R): No.

18th District

Sen. Ann Rivers (R): Excused.

Rep. Brandon Vick (R): No.

Rep. Larry Hoff (R): No.

20th District

Sen. John Braun (R): No.

Rep. Richard DeBolt (R): No.

Rep. Ed Orcutt (R): No.

49th District

Sen. Annette Cleveland (D): Yes.

Rep. Monica Stonier (D): Yes.

Rep. Sharon Wylie (D): Yes.

It also injects more than $7 million in one-time funding into Clark County’s two largest school districts. A 13-line amendment by Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, directs millions of dollars in additional local effort assistance money — state dollars given to school districts without a large property tax base to make up for lower tax revenue — into districts with more than 20,000 full-time students that are located “west of the Cascades in a county that borders another state.”

Only Evergreen and Vancouver fit that description. Evergreen has projected budget deficits between $15 million and $18 million next school year, while Vancouver has projected $17 million in cuts.

“Given my districts are facing very difficult financial circumstances, I felt it was imperative that I do all I can to help provide resources that could help mitigate layoffs and cuts,” Cleveland said by text.

Regionalization factor

Why Clark County? Educators and budget experts say the county was disproportionately affected by something called the regionalization factor. When the state two years ago adopted its education budget in response to the McCleary decision, a landmark Supreme Court case that ruled the state was failing to fully fund basic education, some school districts received more state money than others based on the cost of living in those communities.

Vancouver and its school district employees are impacted by Portland’s cost of living — but the regionalization factor didn’t take that into account. Dave Mastin, director of government relations for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said this funding is intended to ease that inequity.

Vancouver Superintendent Steve Webb has been a vocal critic of the Legislature this session, but in a public statement called Cleveland a “champion for the students” of the region.

“The one-time (local effort assistance) resources will reduce the scope of our projected budget shortfall and ease our transition to the state’s new funding model,” he wrote.

Evergreen Superintendent Mike Merlino echoed the sentiment.

“We will now wait for more specific information about how all of the legislative budget decisions will impact Evergreen both short and long-term,” Merlino said in a district press release. “Again, thanks to Sen. Cleveland’s work, we are spared from making deep cuts of up to $18 million next school year, and remain cautiously optimistic that a longer-term solution will ensure better sustainability.”

Cost concerns

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, however, was less enthused. Harris, who helped negotiate the original McCleary funding package, voted against the levy lift. He said he is concerned that raising local levies will make housing less affordable and burden property owners.

“I’m really concerned that this levy lid lift will get us into another McCleary situation,” he said. “We’ll just end up with the same disparity. This was not the way to do it.”

Mount Pleasant School District, meanwhile, is poised to benefit from the higher levy rate. The rural district took a gamble with its most recent replacement-three year levy, which is leading after a special election on April 23. The district asked for $155,000 per year, making the estimated levy rate $3.53 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2020, $3.48 per $1,000 in 2021 and $3.43 per $1,000 in 2022.

Superintendent Vicki Prendergast said prior to the election that the district could only collect what the state allowed, but officials were hoping something like this would happen, allowing the district to collect more than the capped levy rate.

Districts are also projected to receive new special education funding. The Legislature made changes to how special education students are counted, injecting more than $150 million into a system often criticized as underfunded.

Still, Camas Superintendent Jeff Snell said it won’t be enough to cover the costs of special education.

“There is an increase in funding, but it appears to still be less than what OSPI estimated as needed to fully fund this requirement to ensure each student receives their basic education,” Snell said. “That means we will continue to offset special education costs using local levy dollars.”

Columbian reporter Jake Thomas contributed to this report.

Columbian Education Reporter
Columbian Staff Writer