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When the (School) Levy Breaks

Release Date: 

February 16, 2016

‘When the Levee Breaks’ was a blues song recorded in 1929 by the colorfully named musical duo of Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. The song was about the catastrophic aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

Might Washington be singing a different blues tune here soon: When the School Levies Break? Our state’s overreliance on local voter-approved levies to fund our schools puts many districts on the brink every few years. A failed levy can lead to a flood of teachers and staff leaving a community that can no longer afford to pay what it bargained in compensation, and promised in basic education programs.

We’ve sung this song before. In 1975, Seattle school district experienced a double levy failure. As this Seattle Times article recounts, “Immediately after the vote, the district laid off almost everyone with less than nine years’ experience, a total of 2,400 employees, including 1,100 classroom teachers” before the Legislature stepped in.

After the passage of simple majority legislation, school levy failures are seemingly less common, but they do rear their ugly heads every so often. Tuesday’s voting results look generally good, but still, four districts appear at risk of failing their levies, and another 5 bond measures are also in peril.

At its heart, the McCleary court case is meant to address our overreliance on local school levies. This decision, and the earlier case law, requires the state to define a program of basic education, and fund it, with revenues sources that are “regular and dependable.” Local excess levies, the Court has ruled, don’t qualify.

The mere presence of local excess levies is not the problem in McCleary. The problem is that they currently fund things they legally cannot: services basic to achieving the state’s academic goals, not mere “extras”. This has presented an interesting problem for Legislative thought leaders: how do we define what basic education is, and also, what it is not. This is the conundrum that Senator Jim Hargrove described in a hearing last year, quite aptly, as the “golden tuba” effect; if salaries are to be included in basic education and the state is to assume full responsibility for them, what are local levies to pay for? Golden tubas for the band? And in that scenario, what becomes of local collective bargaining?

In the end, the Legislature’s path to compliance in the McCleary case will probably come down to at least two things: 1) the ability to commit additional, sizeable funding to basic education programs, to absorb at least that which local levies are currently subsidizing, and 2) the ability to demonstrate, through accounting or programmatic rules, how those programs or services paid for by levies are not part of the program of basic education. One is primarily a political challenge, the other primarily technical or legal.

The political battle over additional revenue for basic education receives a lot of attention. Superintendent Dorn’s advocacy has been well chronicled, as well as the state board of education’s position. The battle over what to exclude from basic education is more technical and less widely discussed, but still very important. Some key questions need to be confronted. Should professional development Learning Improvement Days (LID) be part of basic education? What about compensation currently paid out under the TRI statute, which authorizes additional pay for such hard-to-measure things as implementing “innovative activities” to “close achievement gaps”? Should compensation for time spent beyond the basic education school day be considered non-basic education? And by the way, what is the length of the basic education school day?

In the end, even the McCleary court had a difficult time ascertaining the degree of noncompliance; finally settling for the following statement: “the fact that local levy funds have been at least in part supporting the basic education program is inescapable.” But notice they didn’t say by how much. And that’s because nobody really knows.

Whle both McCleary bills introduced this legislative session have disappointed in their silence on the revenue question, despite mounting fines by the Court, the most recent version of Senate Bill 6195 does make movement on the question of what local levies could safely fund in the future. Senator Bruce Dammeier’s substitute version includes this key paragraph:

Excerpt from Senator Bruce Dammeir's substitute version of Senate Bill 6195.

Notice that both (A) and (C) rely upon a definition of a “state funded contract school day,” which we currently do not have established in statute. It is an intriguing concept, however, in that if districts are to pay salary beyond the state salary schedule, there would be an actual element of time added: extended day, summer school, extra professional development, or the like. Certain stakeholders will welcome this clarity. Others will not.

Certainly none of us want a return to major levy failures, like that experienced by Seattle in 1975. But policymakers may differ on what should be protected in the event that levies do fail. From the State Board’s point of view, the definition of basic education salaries should be pretty expansive; it should include a program of state-funded professional development, and the vast majority of salary paid to staff now.

Why? Because a student’s chance at a meaningful high school diploma should not hang in the balance as the last few levy votes are counted. State funds should guarantee that chance. No matter how cleverly the program of basic education is eventually defined, if a sizeable portion of a staff person’s annual salary (say, 20%) is tied to a successful levy, a failed levy means that most of those staff will leave for a neighboring community, or state, with greener pastures. Wouldn’t you?


An updated tracker of  the status of priority bills and several others the Board is monitoring is below.

Tracker showing the status of priority and other monitored bills.

If you have any questions about the State Board of Education’s legislative priorities, please contact Ben Rarick.

Media Contact: 

Alissa Muller, SBE Communications Manager, (360) 725-6501