In their 2012 McCleary decision, the Washington Supreme Court has ordered the legislature to end the unconstitutional over-reliance on unfair local bonds and levies to build and operate schools. Sadly, the legislature has failed to adopt a single provision to reduce unfair bonds and levies. Instead, they have repeatedly voted to raise the levy lid even though they know that what they are doing is completely against our state constitution. In this article, we will explain why and how we canlower local property taxes byusing one billion per year of the $11 billion in repealed tax breaks for the rich. This will lower local property taxes for one million homeowners back to what they were in 1996 - cutting school related local property taxes in half and saving the average family more than one thousand dollars per year.
Hiring 30,000 additional teachers will require building 30,000 additional classrooms. Sadly, not only has our legislature failed to provide adequate funds for operating schools, but they have also failed to supply funds for the repair and building of schools. For more than two decades, our legislature has refuses to pay more than a small fraction of the cost of building and repairing schools.
Whereas our State legislature historically provided more than 66% of the actual construction costs of public schools, State funding for school construction has fallen to below 10% of actual costs during the past 20 years. Instead, the Washington state legislature shifted the responsibility for building and repairing schools onto the backs of local homeowners.
The decline in State Matching funds has resulted in a transfer of this funding burden from the State to local home owners via an increasing dependence on local school construction bonds. Like with operating costs, the State’s failure to help fund school construction has led to a dramatic increase in local school bond and levy costs which in turn have led to a rapid rise in local property taxes. This unfair tax burden increase on middle class homeowners is as high as $2,000 additional dollars per year on the average home in King County. For example, in 2014, residents in King County paid on average $4,507 annually in property tax. This is more than twice what we paid in property taxes in 1996. This dramatic rise in property taxes can best be seen in the chart of total King County Taxes since 1996. The total property tax collected has more than tripled even as funding for schools and other services have been slashed:
Source: 2015-2016 King County Issue Paper General Fund Financial Situation
The State Legislature also Unconstitutionally Tripled the Maximum Levy Lid in the Past 30 Years
High local school levies and school bonds were ruled unconstitutional by our Supreme Court more than 30 years ago. In the late 1970’s, our Supreme Court ruled that our legislature could NOT transfer the burden to pay for public schools onto the backs of local homeowners through the use of unfair and undependable local levies. (Seattle School District No. 1 v. State, 90 Wn.2d 476 (1978).
As a consequence, the maximum local property tax levy lid was set at 10% of State funding. However, since 1980, the legislature has ignored our State Constitution and our Supreme Court and repeatedly raised the local property tax levy lid. It is currently at 28% and in some school districts, it is even higher.
Source: Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Table 3, Excess General Fund Levy Revenue as a Percent of Total Revenue
As a consequence of the legislature repeatedly raising the local property tax levy lid, local School Related Property Taxes in absolute terms have risen by more than 1000% since 1980 - from $150 million to more than $2 billion per year. Anyone who has owned their home since 1980 knows their local property taxes have skyrocketed and this is the main reason why.
High Local Levies unfairly punish children and homeowners in low property school districts
One of the many reasons the Drafters of our State Constitution did not want to rely on local property taxes to fund public schools was the recognition that such as method creates a two tier system of rich schools in communities with high property valuations per child and poorer schools in communities with low property valuations per child. Thus our State Constitution requires our legislature to provide our school children with a State wide “uniform” system of public schools so that every child in our State has a fair chance at success in life.
The difference in property valuations per child in our State are dramatic. As the following chart shows, the Seattle and Bellevue School Districts have property valuations per child that are twice as high as valuations per child in Issaquah and Snoqualmie Valley – and three times as high as property valuations per child in the Tahoma School District.
Thus, the tax property burden on homeowners in Issaquah and Snoqualmie Valley are twice as high as they are in Bellevue and three times as high in Maple Valley as they are in Bellevue and Seattle. As a result of much lower property amounts per child in less affluent school districts, property tax rates in less affluent school districts are much higher than property taxes in wealthy school districts: Source: OSPI Report 1061 Levy Valuation Per Student.
School Related Property Tax Rates have Skyrocketed during the past 10 years
In 2000, the legislature raised the local property tax levy lid from 20% State school funding to 24% of State and federal School Funding. In 2009, after making numerous State budget cuts, the legislature raised the levy lid again by making it 24% of what the State would have paid had the State not actually cut funding for schools. In 2010, the State legislature raised the local property tax levy lid again from 24% to 28% - again not based on what the State is actually paying, but what the State might have paid had they not cut funding for schools by billions of dollars.
All of these levy lid increases in the past 20 years have caused local property tax rates to go through the roof in the past 20 years – further increasing the unfair tax burden on poor and middle class homeowners in our State. Instead of funding schools, our current legislators have given billions in tax breaks to wealthy multinational corporations at the same time that they tell us there is not enough money to hire the teachers or build schools.
How My Levy Reduction Plan Differs from the Levy Swipe Plan
Homeowners are currently forced to pay an additional $2 billion per year due to the unconstitutional and harmful levy system. Many in the legislature have proposed to eliminate the unconstitutional over-reliance on local levies by swiping about one billion dollars in levy funds from school districts in King County and using these funds to replace school levy funds in other counties. The obvious problem with this plan is that it would harm King County school districts.
My plan allows the local levies to simply expire in every county throughout the state. No new levies above 10% of state school funding would be allowed. Current local levy funds used for school operation or construction would be replaced on a dollar for dollar basis by funds from the billions in repealed tax breaks. There would be no loss of funding in any school district.
The net effect is that homeowners would see a gradual reduction in local school related property taxes of at least $1,000 per family as the unconstitutional local levies expired. These homeowners could then spend the $1,000 per year back into the local economy by shopping at local businesses. It would be a part of the biggest economic boom in the history of our state.
But most important, our state school system would be funded from stable and dependable sources that would no longer rely on local school levy and school bond elections. We would put an end to the system of local parents begging local tax payers for more money for schools every two years.
If you agree that it is time to honor our state constitution and provide all students with a uniform system of public schools funded by stable sources of revenue, we hope you will join our campaign for better schools. Together we can and will give our kids the education they need and deserve to succeed in school and succeed in life.
As always, we look forward to your questions and comments.
David Spring M. Ed.
David (at) Spring for Better Schools (dot) org