M&O levies are critical for schools

The News TribuneJanuary 14, 2014 

School measures come in different flavors. Some pay for school construction, some pay for technology, some pay for what’s called “maintenance and operation.”

Capital and technology levies (we’ll address these another day) are usually very important. When voters reject them, education gets hurt. But M&O levies are not just important; they pay for basics. When voters reject a levy twice in a row, they set off a neutron bomb in their local schools.

Many school districts around the state have M&O levies on the Feb. 11 ballot. In the South Sound, they include Tacoma, University Place, Puyallup, Franklin Pierce, Bethel, Sumner, Federal Way and Fife. Smaller districts include Steilacoom, Orting, Dieringer, Eatonville and White River.

These are all designated “Proposition 1” on the ballot. They are replacement levies — though not necessarily replacement of the exact amount, because inflation and expanding enrollments often drive up a district’s expenses. What they replace is the previous M&O levy, keeping existing essentials in place.

For the school districts, M&O levies — which come from property taxes — make all the difference. Statewide, they provide districts with an average of 20 percent of their funding. Some school systems depend on them even more — 24 percent in the case of Tacoma, for example, and 25 percent in the case of University Place.

This money isn’t spent on luxuries; it’s spent on such items as textbooks, student safety and plumbing repairs. Schools that suddenly lose a fifth or more of their ability to pay for these things move right into crisis mode.

The Tacoma district may have the best ballot description of what M&O money buys:

“Proposition 1 would continue funding small classes, teachers, instructional aides, librarians, special education instruction, advanced classes for high-achieving students, supplemental programs to bring students up to grade level, athletics, arts, music and extra-curricular program, textbooks ... maintenance and operations of school buildings, facilities, playgrounds and playfields, alarm and sprinkler systems, campus security and emergency preparedness.”

Other school districts could make similar lists.

Levy opponents have come up with a new argument for nuking schools: The Legislature, not district taxpayers, should be paying for these things — so let the state do it.

Yes, the Legislature should cover the basics. In the real world, it isn’t. Lawmakers are under a court order to fully fund the public schools by 2018. That will be a wonderful change — but it’s no excuse for strangling them in the meantime.

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