Yes, your levy dollars are being spent improperly

Last week Randy Dorn, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, asked for an Attorney General’s Opinion (AGO) on school districts using local levies to pay teacher and staff salaries. While not a formal judicial opinion, AGOs carry a lot of weight and are often used to settle important questions in state government. Specifically, Dorn asked:

“Do school district boards of directors have the authority to use local excess levy funding to pay compensation to district employees-including certificated teachers, administrative personnel, and classified staff–for services that are a part of the program of basic education established under RCW 28A.150.200 through RCW 28A.150.290?”

In a press release, Dorn took a stab at answering his own question: “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.”

A “big enough to ignore” problem
Everyone who follows state education funding – legislators, the executive branch, school boards, PTAs, K-12 administrators – knows that local Maintenance & Operations (M&O) levies (the common name for the “local excess” levies in Dorn’s question) are being spent for items that are supposed to be part of “basic education.”

That’s probably why the state association for school administrators issued a defensive statement, saying Dorn’s AGO request “could create a misleading impression” of “wrong-doing by school district leaders.” They could be seen, they argue, as having spent money improperly when really, they’re between a rock and a hard place because of inadequate state funding.

I’m not unsympathetic to that argument, but we need to acknowledge that this is a long-term problem. Using M&O levies in legally dubious ways isn’t a temporary workaround to a temporary problem. It’s a baked-in structural problem that has grown over time.

And it’s not a small problem. State and local leaders have contributed to it. Dorn provided an example:

“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.”

Let’s recall the history
One of the key findings of 1978’s Doran decision was that school districts over-relied on local levies. Because districts had differing property tax bases, the reliance on local levies was unconstitutional because our “common schools” were growing increasingly unequal. The Legislature responded by increasing state support for K-12 and capping local levies at 10%. A statewide salary schedule was instituted for teacher pay.

It’s because of what happened after those responses that the same old problem of over-reliance on local levies again reared its head, eventually leading to the courts again declaring our schools funding unconstitutional. First, legislators lifted the 10% caps on local levies. Districts are now capped between 28-38%.

Legislators also made an exception to salary schedule-based pay for teachers. Employees could now bargain at the local level over extra pay for added duties, called TRI pay (time, responsibility, incentive).

TRI was supposed to be a small exception, but it’s a classic give-an-inch, take-a-mile situation. M&O levies now routinely go toward funding what are actually general salaries. As Dorn pointed out, the use of those funds has extended to administrators and classified staff, too.

Relief valve helping keep problem unsolved
It’s true that the state has been negligent in fully funding the K-12 system. The twin decisions to lift local levy lids and allow the TRI pay exception served as a relief valve for that funding shortfall, but in the long-term that’s merely helped keep the problem unsolved. When local levies were allowed to grow back to their previous levels and M&O levies were siphoned off for salaries, we creeped back to an unconstitutional funding system.

The problem addressed by Doran manifested itself again because of choices the state made, and grew until it was declared unconstitutional again in McCleary. It remains unsolved.

Clearly part of the solution is overhauling the state salary schedule for teachers and addressing cost-of-living differences in various parts of the state (Rep. Chad Magendanz, especially, has been helpfully pushing that stone uphill). To protect taxpayers from a spending free-for-all, we also need levy reform, with local levies lowered and the state’s levy raised by a like amount. For a constitutional solution that doesn’t soak taxpayers, it’s the rational way forward.

In the meantime, we’ll await the AGO that answers Dorn’s question. It may merely tell us what everyone who follows schools funding already knows, but that’s more useful than it sounds. Maybe then, leaders at the state and local level will have to acknowledge the truth about how they use M&O levies and work toward a solution.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.
  • ruthven78

    I would feel “cheated” as a property tax payer, if I was one, in that if I voted for the levy it would be under the assumption that the money was going to certain uses….salaries not being part of them.

    • Libs Are Dopes

      Uh, unless you live in your car or under a bridge, you are paying property taxes. If you rent, your landlord is paying property taxes and passing his cost for those taxes onto you via the amount you pay for rent. So, even though you may not write a check to the county treasurer, you have skin in the game. Kudos to Mr. Dorn for asking the question.