the eye is as it appears.
-- Rod Serling
A recent Seattle Times editorial, titled School-levy confusion, stated:
The Legislature decided that, as of 2019, local school levies will be for “enrichment” only. That is, for expenses not included in basic education, such as athletics and extracurricular activities.
The editorial went on to say that only one of the school levies on the February ballot in King and Snohomish Counties wasn’t “asking voters for local money to support basic education services like special education.” Based on our reading of the bill, the Times editorial staff have misunderstood how EHB 2242 defined basic education and how it limited the use of local funds. What’s troubling is that this misunderstanding was widely distributed as fact within days of these critical levy elections.
Most of the bill language regarding the permitted use of local funding is found in Section 501 of EHB 2242. The supplemental salary restrictions are found in Section 103. For the purposes of this article I will focus on the non-salary restrictions identified in Section 501, which begins with the following statement:
BASIC EDUCATION ACT AMENDED TO LIMIT USE OF SCHOOL DISTRICT LOCAL REVENUES TO ENRICHMENT ONLY. (1)(a) Beginning September 1, 2019, school districts may use local revenues only for documented and demonstrated enrichment of the state's statutory program of basic education as authorized in subsection (2) of this section.
This language seems consistent with the perspective that the legislation significantly restricts a school districts’ use of local revenues. In subsection (2), however, one finds the actual restrictions put in place by the legislation. Interpreting that subsection is complicated by its liberal use of RCW references. To help understand the meaning of that language, I’ve provided a cross-walk summarizing the content of the RCW’s referenced in each of the subsections.
Based on this review of bill language, the provisions of EHB 2242 Section 501 are not nearly as restrictive as many, including the Times editorial staff, seem to think they are. With this bill, the Legislature has continued to define basic education as those specific K-12 program funding levels provided by the state, and Section 501(2)(a) authorizes school districts to supplement beyond those levels with local enrichment levies. It is worth noting Section 501(4) states: “The superintendent of public instruction must adopt rules to implement this section.” No such rules have yet been created, and in their absence each school leader must determine on their own what restrictions, if any, are created for local funding by Section 501.
In the midst of this confusing aftermath of EHB 2242, the upcoming levy elections are absolutely critical for sustaining current district programs. According to the most recent OSPI data, in the 2015-16 school year, school districts across the state used local funds to hire 2,242 Certificated Instructional Staff and 3,572 Classified Instructional Staff above state staffing allocations. Other than a slight enhancement in K-3 staffing levels, nothing in EHB 2242 will provide state dollars to fund those locally-added positions.
Even with the permissive language cited above, this legislation has significantly reduced how much school districts can raise through local levies. In order to maintain existing staffing levels and other programs currently funded by local levies, school districts across the state seek to maximize the amount of levy funding allowed under this new law. They do this to sustain vital learning supports for the children they serve. As with any levy election, each local community will determine if that support is warranted, but they will hopefully do so with the best information available.