Superintendents, board members and parents attend a Puget Sound ESD media event in Renton on Jan. 12. Contributed photo

Mercer Island urges lawmakers to extend existing levy limits

With Mercer Island standing to lose $1.8 million in local dollars in 2018, Mercer Island School District’s Superintendent Dr. Gary Plano and Board Director and legislative representative, Ralph Jorgenson, joined other education leaders last week to urge the state Legislature to eliminate the impending “levy cliff.”

“The state Legislature needs to come up with a bi-partisan solution to eliminate the impending ‘levy cliff,’” Jorgenson said in a statement. “Without a solution, the 35 districts within the Puget Sound region that serve approximately 420,000 students would lose an estimated $228 million of local voter approved funds. And locally the Mercer Island School District would not be able to collect $1.8 million of local funds for educational programming next year that had previously been approved by our citizens.”

School board members, superintendents and parents from the Puget Sound Educational Service District’s (PSESD) 35 individual local school districts gathered on Jan. 12 in Renton to underscore the importance of extending the existing local levy limit to maintain school programs in the coming year.

A few years ago, lawmakers gave districts limited authority to increase local school levies in anticipation of a fix to the unconstitutional way the state now funds K-12 education. That authority is sun setting in 2018.

“Unless the Legislature acts to extend the local school district authority to maintain these levies at existing levels, districts will lose significant local levy dollars without a clear indication of whether increased state dollars will be available,” according to a statement from PSESD.

The Legislature has not yet approved a new school funding plan, but has pledged to do so during its 105-day session this year.

In the meantime, school districts are planning their 2017-2018 budgets. Plano told the Reporter that the decisions regarding the McCleary decision and statewide education funding may not come until late in the legislative session, or in special session, while school budgets must be enacted before those decisions are expected to be made.

Plano said that per state law, the district budget needs to be approved by August, and layoff notices, if necessary, need to be issued by May 15.

“Legislative action is needed to extend existing levy limits so that districts can bridge the gap until lawmakers adopt a new state school funding formula that satisfies the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision,” according to PSESD. “Absent such action, local district budgets for the 2017-18 academic year will have to reflect a loss of these levy dollars without a clear indication of whether increased state dollars will be available, forcing the use of reserves (where available) and potential reductions in teachers and educational programs.”

Last year, a bill to extend the levy limit for one more year passed the House, but did not get a hearing in the Senate, Plano said.

The extension of the levy limit will not raise taxes; it will simply allow districts to continue collecting local dollars at the existing level beyond the current 2018 sunset date, according to PSESD.

“With the potential impact of the ‘levy cliff’ in our region approaching a quarter-of-a-billion dollars, the statewide impact on schools and students would be even more dramatic,” said John Welch, PSESD superintendent. “We need bipartisan action in Olympia early in the session to extend the existing levy limit so that schools can retain their teachers and maintain programs for their students until the final McCleary funding formula is adopted.”

Welch spoke at Thursday’s event, along with Renton School District superintendent Art Jarvis, Bethel School District board president Warren Smith, Sr. and Lake Washington School District Erika Kapur.

Plano said that Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget would “benefit Mercer Island in significant ways,” but that the House and Senate have to come up with their own budgets. Extending the levy limit would give local districts more security and certainty as they plan their budgets, and Plano said that could happen earlier in the session.

State Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island) has already introduced Senate Bill 5023, which would delay the levy cliff.

“Our first priority should be giving these schools the certainty they need to prepare for the 2017-18 school year,” Wellman said in a statement. “We certainly shouldn’t be pulling the rug out from under them as we try to find a long-term solution here in Olympia.”

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