Opinion

No reduction in sight for local school levies

The South Kitsap School District administration faces a difficult task in developing the next four-year excess levy proposal.

Continued budget problems at the state level make the amount of state school funding uncertain and perhaps make it likely that another round of cuts in projected funding are on the way.

Even though the state supreme court recently ruled that the state has not been adequately funding the “basic education” programs defined by the legislature, no immediate change to improve state funding is likely.

The court continues to defer to the legislature to define the required programs and funding, but at least this time the court retains jurisdiction as it awaits the legislature’s actions.

More than 30 years ago, the court made a similar ruling, which got us a definition of “basic education” from the legislature but decades of difficulty in providing the needed funding.

Maybe this time, with the court looking over the legislature’s shoulder during the several years of reform that lie ahead, the outcome will be different.

The legislature’s initial decision back then to cap local school levies at 10 percent of regular funding turned out to be a false promise as the legislature subsequently raised the cap.  Now it’s 28 percent for most districts and higher for those “grandfathered” at even higher limits.

Even though the court appears determined to watch and intervene if need be, the process of reform in programs and funding is anticipated to take years to complete.

That means SKSD must develop the next excess levy proposal with little or no expectation that state funding will increase by much during the 2014-2017 period covered by the proposal.

By the time the ballot proposition is adopted by the school district directors late this year, they will at least have an idea what the legislature has done (and will do) in the immediate future.

Since the local levy has to fill as much of the gap between regular state and federal funding and actual costs as practicable, knowing the likely near-term gap is probably all they can hope for.

Having already obtained voter approval in 2009 for substantial levy increases in tax years 2010-2013, SKSD faces a probable need to ask for even more increases in the next four years.

The levy amount in 2010 was an increase of $2.1 million, or 14.6 percent above the 2009 amount.

Increases in the last three years of the current four-year excess levy period are 3 percent for 2011, 5 percent for 2012, and 7 percent for 2013.

Although the constitutional amendment that made it possible to pass these levies with a simple majority removed the worry about obtaining approval by 60 percent of voters, one has to wonder how quickly the levy amounts can rise before even the majority balks.

It’s not as though these previously approved levy amounts provide more than SKSD needs, since the state has been cutting back its school funding while the local levy rises.

The likely decline in state funding was a factor voters knew in 2009 when they approved the substantial increases for the current four-year levy period.

What voters couldn’t know was the extent to which the state’s revenue shortfall would cause reductions in state school funding.

Now we have seen some of the cuts, and we may see more.

The court’s ruling requires the state to provide funding that gives all children in the state the opportunity to receive a basic education.

SKSD will need to show how its levy proposal accomplishes the same thing while awaiting meaningful reform of the state’s funding system.

No one can guarantee that every child will make the best use of the opportunity provided, but we do have to provide the opportunity — one way or the other.

Until the legislature makes the changes needed to shift the funding burden from the local levies to the taxes we pay to the state, local levies remain an unavoidable part of the funding needed to provide that opportunity.

 

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident

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