Crossing guard David Swan keeps watch as Jefferson School students cross Lauridsen Boulevard in Port Angeles on Thursday. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Crossing guard David Swan keeps watch as Jefferson School students cross Lauridsen Boulevard in Port Angeles on Thursday. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

State legislation could raise school levy rates

PORT ANGELES — As layoffs of about 33 employees loom over the Port Angeles School District in anticipation of a $2.6 million budget shortfall, lawmakers in Olympia are considering a bill that could provide $3 million to the district.

If approved, Senate Bill 5313 would raise levy lid rates from $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $2.50 per $1,000, providing relief to school districts across the state that are facing layoffs, but there is uncertainty as to what will actually make it into the final budget.

Prior to the “McCleary fix” implemented last year to address a state Supreme Court ruling that the state must adequately fund basic education, the levy in the Port Angeles School District was $3 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Though the state increased state property taxes and pumped billions of dollars into the public school system, the levy collected in the Port Angeles School District was cut in half from $9 million to $4.5 million.

Port Angeles School Superintendent Martin Brewer said Wednesday that though the $3 million would benefit the district, he would prefer a solution that includes state funding.

“The levy swap created a challenge for many districts across the state and this seems to be pushing the solution onto our local tax base when the levy swap was a state initiative,” Brewer said.

“Pushing the swap concept off on our local tax base is not the right solution.”

Brewer emphasized that his opinion does not reflect those of members of the School Board, who have not discussed how an influx of $3 million would affect the layoffs.

The district is sending notices to about 33 staff members from all departments who might be cut during the reductions in force, he said. Most of those notices have already been sent and the process should be done today, he said.

The bill is currently under consideration in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, of which state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, is a member.

He said Wednesday that he expects the state Legislature to do “something around levies” but he doubts that this bill will become law as written. He said he is undecided on whether he supports the bill.

“I have some hesitation around school levies because we just raised taxes for McCleary,” he said. “This budget is already putting more in for sure. What we do on a local level remains to be seen.”

Director Sandy Long, president of the Port Angeles School Board, said she wants to wait and see what the Legislature does and not speculate what might happen.

“We’re going to have to see what they’re going to do,” she said. “It’s hard for me to say anything until they get the budget passed, then we’ll bring that to the board and discuss it.”

As the school district has considered laying off staff, officials have been watching the legislature closely and Long said she is anxious to see what lawmakers come up with.

Like Brewer, she believes the solution should come from the state and not local taxpayers, she said.

“I would have to really think carefully about raising the levy lid because the state set it and it’s really their business to get this funding done,” she said, adding that this bill would “put it back on the property owners who were already taxed once.”

Levies under this bill would revert back to the most recent rate approved by voters within the $1.50 to $2.50 range. If a district’s most recently approved levy was over $2.50, it would revert to the cap of $2.50.

The bill continues to create differences in funding formulas based on school district size, with higher dollar-per-pupil rates for school districts that have more than 9,600 full-time-equivalent students.

In 2018, property owners paid an additional $1.06 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in state taxes as part of the “McCleary fix.”

That dropped to 73 cents per $1,000 this year after lawmakers promised to reduce taxes.

The McCleary decision in 2012 required the Legislature to fully fund “basic education.” The Legislature had been found in contempt of court until 2018, when it adopted a plan to put billions of dollars toward K-12 education in coming years.

As a part of its McCleary solution, the Legislature reduced the levy cap to its current rate of $1.50.

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].

Emma Epperly, Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation intern, contributed to this report.

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