Despite six years of legislative wrangling, it is increasingly clear that lawmakers failed to adequately address the state Supreme Court’s decision in McCleary v. Washington. Many school districts across the state are facing budget shortfalls and returning to voters with hats in hand.
Locally, operating levies are on the ballot in the Vancouver, Woodland and Washougal districts. Ballots are due Tuesday with administrators asking taxpayers to either maintain or add funding for what they consider to be basic services. Vancouver Public Schools, for example, is asking for a three-year levy that would collect about $10 million a year in new taxes. Washougal schools are requesting an operations levy and technology levy, each of them to replace expiring levies, and Woodland also is seeking to replace an expiring levy.
For voters, frustration stems from a belief that Washington had evolved beyond heavy reliance on local levies. The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the Legislature had failed in its constitutional obligation to treat funding of public schools as its “paramount duty”; dependence on local levies to supplement state funding had led to inequities in the quality of education from district to district. In 2018, lawmakers created a solution designed to increase state funding for schools and allow districts to lessen the burden from local levies.
That assertion appears to have been Pollyannaish. As Woodland Public Schools Superintendent Michael Green told The Columbian: “They fall short in terms of all sorts of key areas, like funding special education programs, funding staff. About half of our classified staff are funded locally.”
School funding can be complicated. District officials varyingly ask voters to approve levies or bonds. The quick explanation: Levies are for year-to-year operating expenses, while bonds represent long-term funding for construction. For example, the Ridgefield district next week is asking voters to approve a bond for construction that will accommodate a quickly growing district; Vancouver, Woodland and Washougal are requesting levies.
In Vancouver, that request is for an add-on to existing levies. Because of changes to the state funding model, officials say, the district approved $14.5 million in budget cuts for this year. Estimates are that the levy will increase property taxes by about 40 cents per $1,000 in assessed value for each of the next three years.
While the state has complicated matters and left districts scrambling, Vancouver Public Schools also deserves scrutiny for the budget crunch. Following the 2018 increase in state funding, numerous districts throughout Washington faced the prospect of teacher strikes over demands for salary increases. The Columbian warned editorially at the time: “A word of advice is warranted for school districts: Don’t bargain away money you don’t have.” Instead, Vancouver approved raises of about 12.5 percent in the first year of a new contract, contributing to an unsustainable budget situation.
The primary issue, however, is that the Legislature’s 2018 solution has created more problems than it solved and has opened the door for additional court battles. The state has quickly returned to a scenario in which districts are dependent on local levies to fund basic education and in which that dependence creates inequities.
The crux of the McCleary decision is that high-quality education must be available to all students throughout Washington and that such quality should not be dictated by a student’s ZIP code. Lawmakers left far too many holes in their solution, leaving districts to ask taxpayers to fill in the blanks.