Dorn Asks AG Ferguson for an Opinion on Local Levies

State Superintendent Randy Dorn's letter to Attorney General Bob Ferguson. The letter is much more in the weeds than the press release below. Dorn ends the letter saying (partial):

In the meantime, many school districts have already begun the process of planning future levies.

Without clarity on this question, school districts cannot adequately plan how they intend to deliver - or pay for - basic education services.

Given the longstanding - and ongoing - legal uncertainly regarding school districts' authority to use local levy funding to pay district personnel for basic education services, I believe it is essential that your response to this request be expedited.

Press Release

Nearly 40 years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s education funding system relied too much on local levies. That reliance, the Court said, was unconstitutional.
Nearly four years ago, the Court reaffirmed that opinion in McCleary v. Washington.

And yet, since then, I’ve heard few ideas about reforming the levy system.

With that in mind, I’ve asked Attorney General Bob Ferguson today to issue a formal opinion answering the following question:

Do school district board members have the authority to use local levies to pay compensation to district employees for basic education services?

The fact is that, every year, school districts levy local taxpayers to pay for administrative, support staff, and teacher salaries. To give one example: In Bethel the state pays an average of $60,000 for each administrative staff. But the district pays an average of $111,600.

Where does the $51,600 difference come from? Local levies.

The problem isn’t just with administrators. For certificated staff, the difference is $10,000; for classified, it’s $12,700.

That’s per employee.

And while the numbers are different for each of our state’s 295 districts, most must use local levies to pay for salaries.

I’m asking my question because the Supreme Court was not asked to address this issue directly in McCleary. The Court has ruled that the state must fully fund basic education, but they have not addressed the other side of the equation: Can local districts use levies to make up for what the state isn’t providing? I believe the answer is no. Levies are for enrichment, and can be funded by local taxpayers.

Basic education is a state responsibility. Districts don’t have the authority to use local levies to make up what the state chooses not to fund.

I hope Attorney General Ferguson can provide an answer before the holidays so that the Legislature can act accordingly, and so that districts can have clarity as they prepare future budgets and future levies. I hope the Attorney General agrees.


Anonymous said…
If that's so (and it sounds to me it is based on the McLeary language) I wonder then how local compensation will be set? Will it be consistent across districts? Will each district have consistent length of day, planning, etc? Will each district negotiate wit he state individually? Will we end up with the urban/higher COL areas fighting the lower COL areas? It's the part of "let's just fund McLeary" as if it would resolve Seattle teacher pay complaints that was happening during the strike that has never made sense to me. Add to that administrator proportions, special ed, bussing, facilities, etc and I don't really understand how more funding will magically solve all that is wrong with education here.

North Seattle
Anonymous said…
What's going to happen is Seattle pays more and it goes to the rest of the state, while we have less control over the dollars that are allocated to us. That is not pie in sky projections. That is exactly what is being proposed by legislators right now.

Charlie Mas said…
Superintendent Dorn is right to ask this question. It should be unconstitutional and illegal for districts to pay for basic education services out of their local levy.

That said, the districts can claim that they are paying teachers and administrators for services beyond basic education services and there is no way that any Court can find otherwise. Teachers are always doing all kinds of stuff that goes beyond the job description.

I don't think that McCleary or the constitutional requirement of a uniform system of schools prohibits differences in teacher salaries from district to district. Didn't the Court speak to this in McCleary? Most of the versions of the levy swap scheme that I've heard, include pay variances to provide higher salaries to teachers in higher cost-of-living communities. Not only will this provide some equity in teacher salaries, it will also allow higher tax generating districts to retain a bit more of the revenue they generate. Not much, but some. I think a cost of living formula in the state teacher salary formula could also be a tool to provide teachers with a codified regular cost of living adjustment to their salaries. That would be a good thing.

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