Supermajority should be preserved

They are back again. The lower house of our state Legislature voted to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot at the next general election which would, if adopted by the voters, eliminate the supermajority requirement for approving school levies.

As they return each year with the same tired old song, it’s beginning to seem more like a rite of spring than a genuine effort to improve funding of our schools.

That’s probably because it isn’t an effort to improve school funding, but is instead an effort to shift the burden from the state to the local districts.

And once again we must hope that a sufficient number of senators will understand the detrimental effect of such a change, and will reject this idea.

Two specific parts of our constitution come into play. One obliges the Legislature to provide a general and uniform system of public schools for all children in this state. The other permits excess property tax levies if approved by 60 percent of the voters in the taxing district.

Note that excess levies are, by definition, not revenue that comes from the state through the Legislature’s budget process. These excess property tax levies are collected in each local taxing district where they are approved.

Some of the people who support the proposed amendment claim that it would be a way for the state to meet its obligation to fund the schools, so the difference is stated here in the hope that one or two of them may begin to understand.

Since 1987, Washington has tended to move away from the constitutional requirement to provide for public school funding at the state level.

There is no practical alternative to relying on local levies to some extent, but the tendency has been to shift a greater share of the cost onto the local districts rather than the state.

If all districts had essentially the same ability to pay the costs of local schools, there would be no problem. But, of course, they are not all the same.

Levy equalization funding is one way the state has reduced the difference in ability to pay, but unfortunately even it has been cut.

In the past few years, the treatment of levy equalization funding provides an example of the quiet withdrawal of state funding from school districts (like South Kitsap) whose tax base is lower than the state average on a per pupil basis.

When the levy lid was raised to 20 percent years ago, levy equalization funding from the state was offered as a way to reduce some of the disparity in the ability to pay at the local level.

Note that the levy equalization funding never helped districts go all the way to the levy lid. It only helped them get halfway there.

But half a loaf is truly better than none.

When the levy lid was raised to 24 percent, levy equalization wasn’t increased until a couple of years later. But when it was increased, levy equalization funding apparently achieved the intended result — approval of proposed levies by the voters in virtually every school district.

One might think that such a simple and equitable solution would be vigorously defended — especially by politicians who claim to be so passionately in favor of public schools. But it wasn’t.

Starting in 2003, the amount of levy equalization funding was reduced by 1 percent temporarily to balance the state’s budget.

It was a small cut, but notice that the cut affected only the districts that have a lower tax base per pupil and thus have a harder time passing a sufficiently high levy.

Then, the Legislature came back and reduced levy equalization funding again for 2004 and 2005. Now, instead of receiving 99 percent of the previously authorized funding, school districts receive 93.7 percent.

For South Kitsap School District, that is a cut of more than $150,000 each year the reduction remains in effect.

Did anyone hear our legislators utter even a small peep of protest?

It isn’t a partisan matter. They have all let us down, repeatedly — for years.

If the constitution is amended to remove the supermajority requirement, it will be easier to pass local school levies up to a point.

And, because it will be easier to pass them with a simple majority, expect state funding for our schools to be reduced — as surely as night follows day.

A little more than 25 years ago, there was a short-lived change in the way schools were funded. For about 10 years, after a Supreme Court ruling, the state began to assume a greater share of the burden rather than relying so heavily on local levies.

The change finally ran out of momentum, as the relatively affluent areas refused to pay more for schools located in the less affluent areas.

Would they win again, if the amendment is on the ballot in November? Maybe they would. That’s why the Senate needs to reject the amendment.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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