Bill to delay school budget shortfall — or 'levy cliff' — heads to Gov. Inslee's desk

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The "levy cliff" that threatened to slash school district budgets across Washington state will be delayed with Gov. Jay Inslee's signature, after the state House and Senate pushed a bill through that prevented an automatic drop in property tax levies.

School districts get money in state and federal funding, called their "levy base." Most school districts in Washington can collect up to 28 percent of their levy base through local property taxes, but that percentage was supposed to drop to 24 percent next year.

On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled state Senate voted 48-1 to pass a delay of the drop — known as a levy cliff — and today the House passed it with a vote of 87-10.  The bill now goes to Inslee, who is expected to sign it.

As the legislature tries to figure out how to meet it's court-mandated McCleary obligation to fund education, this gives schools some assurance that they will not see a dramatic dip in their budgets, estimated at $500 million for districts, the Seattle Times has reported.

Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said in a statement that schools in Spokane stood to lose more than $14 million in funding. Until the levy cliff delay, Spokane Public Schools was among districts across the state trying to draft a budget for the 2017-18 school year without knowing if there would be a drop in property tax levies it could collect.

"We are happy to see that both sides of the aisle could come to the table in a compromise that will allow our district to move forward with our budget process," says Spokane Public Schools Spokesman Kevin Morrison. "This bill protects the financial stability of Spokane Public Schools moving forward.

The bill only extends the levy cliff for one year. And the larger task of the legislature — to fulfill it's McCleary obligation — is still to come. The state Supreme Court ruled in its 2012 McCleary decision that the state must cover the costs of basic education to prevent districts from using property tax levies to do so.

"This bill not only provides a sense of certainty for our teachers, families and students, it is a testament to what we can accomplish when we put our political differences aside to do the right thing," Billig says.

Billig calls this a "small step" in the goal to fully fund schools, but is encouraged that a levy cliff solution was reached.

"I am confident that if we use the same spirit of cooperation we saw today," Billig said Wednesday, "we can negotiate and finalize a complete education funding solution that helps every student achieve their fullest potential."