Funding model for public schools is archaic, unjust

As many school districts in Pierce County prepare for replacement levies on the Feb. 11 ballot, it is important that taxpayers in those districts understand some of the causes of the relatively high property tax rates in Pierce County, and particularly the reasons behind the variance in school levy rates from district to district.

While Steve Maynard’s article (TNT, 11-25) provided an overview of the many factors that can affect local property tax rates, voters in our school districts may still have questions about why local maintenance and operation (M&O) levies vary so widely across the state.

A school district’s levy authority – the amount the district can ask its voters to approve – is set by the Legislature. Following a 1977 Supreme Court decision, the Legislature established maximum levy authority – the levy lid – at 10 percent. In other words, a district’s authorized levy could not exceed 10 percent of the district’s state and federal revenues.

Over the past 30-plus years, the Legislature has repeatedly raised the levy lid, shifting an ever larger share of the responsibility for funding public schools onto local taxpayers.

In 2011, the Legislature again raised the levy lid, and current law now allows all districts to collect at least 28 percent of their total state and federal revenues. This pattern of shifting an ever higher proportion of public school funding from the state to local district taxpayers was one of the major factors in the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision, which found that the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to fund public schools.

Ninety districts in the state are also “grandfathered” by the Legislature at higher levy lids ranging from 28.01 to 37.90 percent. These districts can ask voters to approve millions more in levy funds than non-grandfathered districts.

The crucial problem with this funding structure is that vastly different tax rates are required from district to district. If a district has little business or industry within its borders, a higher percentage of the tax burden is borne by homeowners. However, if a district has a relatively high business or industry presence within its borders, the tax burden is spread among homeowners and commercial entities, which lowers everyone’s tax rate.

The result is an unconscionable inequity for both public schools and taxpayers.

Our districts are examples.

In 2012, the University Place School District collected $1,918 per student via its voter-approved levy; the rate was $3.976 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Franklin Pierce School District collected $1,942 per student at a rate of $4.60 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

In the same year, the Seattle School District collected $3,250.68 per student, at a rate of $1.314 per $1,000 of assessed value. Compared to our districts, Seattle School District can raise nearly 70 percent more money per student at only a third of the tax rate.

Taxpayers in school districts with relatively little commercial property – such as University Place, Franklin Pierce and other Pierce County school districts – are paying far higher tax rates even though those districts are collecting significantly fewer levy dollars per student than districts such as Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue and Lake Washington.

This is not the school districts’ fault; this is the direct result of a system that is grossly inequitable and broken.

Even though property-poor districts receive levy equalization dollars as a partial means of addressing this inequity, the playing field is still far from even. Our children’s educational opportunities should not be dependent on geographic and commercial happenstance.

All children deserve equal access to lower class sizes, counselors, nurses and other support staff. All districts need to be on a far more equitable financial footing in order to offer fair, competitive salaries to recruit and retain a skilled professional workforce.

A robust, sustainable economy in Washington state is dependent on stable, ample and equitable funding for all our public schools. Our legislators and leaders must find the will to confront and correct the unjust and archaic funding model that continues to require those with the least to pay the most.

Patti Banks is superintendent of the University Place School District. Frank Hewins is superintendent of the Franklin Pierce School District.