Robin Sheriff prepares to usher Jefferson Elementary students across Lincoln Street in Port Angeles on Monday. The state Legislature approved a bill Sunday that gives school districts the option to raise their levies again. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

Robin Sheriff prepares to usher Jefferson Elementary students across Lincoln Street in Port Angeles on Monday. The state Legislature approved a bill Sunday that gives school districts the option to raise their levies again. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

Port Angeles School District assessing state’s levy lid lift

Following approved cuts, impact and funding remains unclear

PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles School District will see an increase in funding in 2020 after the state Legislature narrowly approved a “levy lid lift” late Sunday, less than a week after the district approved $2.6 million in staff reductions.

Exactly how much that increase is and what it means for the district remained unclear Monday, but what was clear is that the bill does not offer immediate relief for the school district.

Enrichment levy funding cannot be used for basic education and the earliest the district could see any additional money from the levy lid lift would be in spring 2020.

Billed as a way for individual school districts to fill gaps in the state’s funding model, which parcels out money from state budgets, the measure will allow districts to collect up to $2.50 for every $1,000 in property value, up from $1.50. An alternative minimum would also be boosted for districts with more than 40,000 students.

Superintendent Martin Brewer said the district was still working to make sense of the bill Monday, but said it does not appear to offer immediate relief.

He said the school board would need to decide whether it would approve increasing its levy from $1.50 per $1,000 assessed valuation to $2.50. Voters have already approved a levy rate of about $3 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, but that was capped at $1.50 when the state adopted the “McCleary fix.”

The McCleary fix cut the $9 million the district was authorized to collect in half. If the enrichment levy is increased up to $2.50, that could mean about $3 million more for the school district.

“I’ve made it very clear and public that … I think it’s wrong to put this funding deficiency on the backs of the local tax base,” Brewer said. “That’s the frustrating part.”

He has said that he believes the state should fully fund special education, which Brewer considers basic education. Special education is currently funded with about $1 million from the enrichment levy.

Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles; Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Port Townsend; and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, who represent the North Olympic Peninsula, voted in favor of the bill.

“It’s important to give school districts local authority to ask the voters if they need additional funding,” Chapman said in a text message. “It was passed as part of our commitment to fully fund education.”

Chapman said he does not believe that allowing districts to raise their levies again shifts the burden from the state back to local taxpayers.

Van De Wege said he was hesitant to vote for the measure, but he saw it was clear that Olympic Peninsula school districts would benefit from the bill.

Van De Wege said he and Chapman both voted against the McCleary fix because they felt the levy swap did not benefit area school districts, Van De Wege said. That swap and boost in funding led to districts across the state approving “well-deserved hefty raises that were not sustainable.”

Van De Wege said if the Port Angeles School District does not do anything, it should receive an additional $426,000 in 2020 in local effort assistance funding.

“If that’s true, $426,000 in local effort assistance would be welcome,” Brewer said. “That’s a welcome addition.”

Tharinger did not respond to a request for comment.

Prior to the McCleary fix, the Port Angeles School District’s levy was at $3 per $1,000 of assessed valuation and raised $9 million for the district.

That was cut in half when the state Legislature capped the levy at $1.50 and raised the state school levy to pour billions of dollars into funding basic education.

Those tax increases remain in effect. Chapman said the state is putting an additional $4 billion into funding basic education next year, while local enrichment levies can be used for things such as music programs, sports and special education.

“[School districts] could ask the community to raise the levy, that’s their choice,” Chapman said. “Before, they didn’t have that choice.”

Chapman said the state Legislature also passed a bill that allows timber harvest dollars to stay within school districts.

The debate about levies is the latest ramification of the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary ruling, which declared that the state was constitutionally required to cover the cost of basic education, but left ambiguous the question of whether schools could raise additional money themselves to cover expanded programs.

Schools for decades had periodically asked voters to approve property taxes beyond the state’s regular 1 percent state limit, but over time the levies had grown, carrying more and more of schools’ everyday operations.

The court called the imbalance unconstitutional, and in 2017 legislators shifted some of the funding burden back to the state by adding billions to education budgets. They approved a new limit on local levies the same year, shifting them from a flat 28 percent rate to a two-part formula that capped them based on either property values or student count, which began to take effect at the beginning of 2019.

With the passage of the lid lift, the thresholds in the two-part formula shifted upward.

Along with the lid lift, the bill also contained an audit provision, requiring school districts to submit detailed reports on how they had spent the funds they collected from local residents, to prove they were for eligible programs.

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at jmajor@peninsuladailynews.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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