An education bill which passed on the tail-end of the Legislative session this week aiming to  increase the amount of property taxes school districts can collect, could have positive effects for local school districts facing budget shortages and those that have recently announced staffing cuts.

The Legislature also announced a biennium K-12 education budget of $4.5 billion, with $936 million going toward special education funding. A large portion of the education budget’s 60 percent increase came from special education funding. 

Senate Bill 5313, which passed 25 to 23 from the Senate, allows a school district to levy $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value or $2,500 per student in districts with fewer than 40,000 full-time students. The bill would allow districts with more than 40,000 students to levy the same $2.50 per $1,000 or $3,000 per student. 

The bill also ensures accountability measures for how these enrichment levy funds can be spent, meaning the districts cannot spend the levy money on anything classified as basic education.

The measure was taken in response to school districts across the state having requested that the legislature raise the levy lid to alleviate the possibility of any layoffs.

Rainier School District, for example, has already announced it would need to layoff enough personnel to account for about $550,000.

Bryon Bahr, superintendent of Rainier School District, said he would like to thank the legislature for all of its hard work, in response to the levy lid lift, but he didn’t leave it at that.

“It will take a little time to get the detailed, specific impact on the Rainier School District,” Bahr said. “We are trying to understand the impact that the new levy lift will do for our students. We are in the process of crunching numbers and waiting for some clarification from other elements that will affect our funding such as SEBB.”

SEBB, or the School Employees Benefit Board, will provide school workers health insurance and other benefits starting Jan. 1, 2020, which could cost Rainier School District upwards of $250,000. These are the types of costs that the levy lid lift has the potential to alleviate. 

Last August, during a public hearing and budget adoption, Yelm Community Schools reported it would need to cut an estimated $4.7 million of expenditures during the 2019-2020 school year in order to stay compliant with its budget. 

The district also reported a loss in local levy dollars despite an increase in state apportionment by the legislature.

Superintendent Brian Wharton said the district has been looking into non-staffing cost reductions to reduce expenses. The district is also look at whether they need to fill retirement or resignations.

As it relates to the levy lid increase, Wharton said it’s not an entire fix. Yelm Schools officials are also still trying to relay the impact of this increase. 

“We’re not at a point to see what will have to happen at our district,” Wharton said. “It’s certainly better than not having some levy restoration.”

When it comes to next year, Wharton said he predicts labor strikes, continued talks of significant cuts and the struggle of composing balanced budgets will continue to haunt property-poor school districts. He also said almost all districts in Thurston County will likely need to run a levy next year. 

“I think there were lots of promises about how to fix the McCleary fix, and while I’ll give credit for some progress, (but) it’s not fixed yet,” Wharton said. 

Reporting contributed by Emma Epperly of the WNPA Olympia News Bureau

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