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May 27, 2022

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King County schools ask voters to fund billions in levy and bond measures

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SEATTLE — So much about schooling has changed during the pandemic, but one thing remains the same: Districts say they need far more money than they get from the state — even with the extra funds mandated by the landmark 2012 McCleary decision requiring Olympia to amply fund basic education.

Witness the dozens of levies and bond measures before King County voters on the Feb. 8 ballot.

For example, the state pays for special education costs associated with up to 13.5% of a district’s enrollment. Yet, Seattle Public Schools and the Northshore School District say about 15% of their students qualify for special education, and the small amount of money chipped in by the federal government doesn’t make up the difference.

Money for special education amounts to roughly a third of Northshore’s $265 million ask in its educational programs and operations levy measure, said school board member Sandy Hayes.

Another case in point: The state funds nine nurses for the 106 schools in the Seattle district, according to Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance JoLynn Berge; the district employs 68.

The state also provides limited funds for technology — “only 14% of what is needed to support a large school district,” said Barbara Posthumus, associate superintendent of business and support services for the Lake Washington School District. It is trying to pass three levy measures, including one that would raise $177 million, largely for technology.

Technology needs exponentially increased when schools shifted to remote learning. Federal pandemic relief money helped, but Posthumus said it wasn’t enough. The Lake Washington district bought laptops and hot spots for staff and many of its 31,000 students.

Likewise, Berge, of the Seattle district, said, “We’ve probably added 40,000 devices with the onset of the pandemic.” The district has upped the amount it plans to spend on technology by more than $100 million since the last levy. Technology represents about a third of the district’s six-year, $783 million capital levy request.

That’s a big number, reflective of the lucky position the Seattle district occupies when it comes to levies, which collect money through property taxes over a period of up to six years. Not only have Seattle voters rarely rejected a school funding request in recent history, but the district’s levies can raise an astounding amount.

Its two levies passed in 2019 amounted to $2.2 billion and the two currently on the ballot add up to $1.4 billion. That’s enough to tackle capital projects like school construction, projects that are not considered “basic” education and therefore funded by the state according to the McCleary ruling.

A lawsuit, filed by rural Wahkiakum School District, argues it’s unfair for taxpayers to shoulder the burden of raising money for school buildings. But that’s the current system. And most state districts need to pass bond measures — allowing them to borrow money and pay it back with interest over 20 or more years — to raise even a fraction of the amount Seattle and a few other wealthy districts can raise with levies.

Consider Northshore, which has a capital bond measure on the ballot that would raise $425 million, to be used for adding classroom space and alleviating overcrowding that has the district relying on 172 portables.

“We’re going to struggle a bit more because we don’t have industry in the way some of the other districts in King County do,” said Hayes, the school board member. The largely suburban district doesn’t have big businesses like Microsoft or Amazon, which raise the amount of property values taxes can be collected on.

Hayes said bond measures have advantages. If passed, a district can borrow the total amount of money right away, start a variety of projects and take advantage of current prices before they go up. Levies, in contrast, provide only a partial amount every year.

But bond measures are harder to pass, requiring a supermajority, or 60%, of the vote instead of the simple majority that levies require. Northshore is the only district in King County currently putting a bond measure forward.

Jeff Heckathorn, a sharp critic of bond measures who runs a website analyzing school funding data, maintains interest and fees end up costing taxpayers far more than advertised. He has made the point to the King County Assessor’s Office, which has an online tool for property owners to estimate the amount of taxes they will pay.

Chief Deputy Assessor Al Dams and Lisa Youngblood Hall, spokesperson for the Northshore district, said bond proposals are like houses for sale: the price listed doesn’t include interest paid on a loan, or mortgage. “We don’t know the interest rate until we sell the bonds,” Youngblood Hall added.

But she said a projected tax rate includes estimated interest. Dams said the county Assessor’s Office only got the principal amount from Northshore, and has decided to make that clear with a note in its tool, as with any other bond measures in which that might arise.

Such considerations don’t seem to weigh heavily on Northshore district voters, which have consistently supported bond measures. “I feel like I need to be throwing salt over my shoulder or something,” Hayes said.

That’s not so of voters in the Lake Washington district. Between 2010 and now, the district has run five bond measures. Some got as much as 55% of the vote, but only one got the necessary supermajority, in 2016, according to Posthumus.

Levies, however, have tended to pass easily. So the district this year opted to propose a $295 million levy to address the most critical construction projects.

Like Northshore, the Lake Washington district — which has grown by 31% since 2008 — also wants to build classrooms and reduce its use of portables. The district has 162 of these makeshift classroom buildings. A dozen are in one school alone, Louisa May Alcott Elementary.

Meanwhile, some legislators are continuing a long-running effort to require only a simple majority for passing school bonds, a change that would take a constitutional amendment, approved by two-thirds of each branch of the Legislature and then a vote of the people. A bill introduced this month, HJR 4200, attempts to get the ball rolling.

“Why doesn’t the majority rule?” asked Joel Aune, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators and one of many education advocates supporting the bill. He recalled a 2011 election when he was superintendent of the Snoqualmie Valley School District.

The district was so overcrowded that some teachers didn’t have classrooms, and wheeled carts into spaces momentarily vacated by colleagues with planning periods. Snoqualmie Valley asked voters to approve a bond measure to build a middle school.

It failed by one vote, Aune recalled. Not 1%. One vote. “It was really a tough night,” he said. And a frustrating one, given that 59.99% of the vote would be “a landslide in any other election.”

But Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank, said in a draft legislative memo that “the 60 percent voter approval requirement is a safeguard built into the state constitution to prevent families, business owners, the elderly and other property owners from being overburdened by long-term public debt.” She also said the requirement does not stop many bond measures from passing.

The Feb. 8 election will again put that to the test.

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