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Washington Senate offers plan to fix Washington's dependence on local levies for schools


SEATTLE — A new bipartisan bill from the Washington Senate makes another attempt at eliminating the state's dependence on local tax levies to pay for public schools, but it doesn't offer a concrete way to pay for it.

The proposal, Senate Bill 6130, which was posted on Wednesday, offers a possible solution to an important part of the Supreme Court's 2012 McCleary decision on school funding.

The decision said the state needs to spend more on education and stop relying so much on local property taxes to pay for basic education.

"The quality of our children's education should not depend on their zip codes," Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Republican from Puyallup who is the main sponsor on the bill, said in a written statement. "This bill gives us a way to resolve this complex issue."

The measure proposes a new statewide teacher salary schedule and bans the use of local levy dollars for basic education. The bill would ask the state auditor and the office of superintendent of public instruction to keep an eye on local school districts to make sure they aren't breaking the law.

It acknowledges the need for more dollars for education but does not offer a concrete way to find that money. Near the end of the bill, it says other parts of the state budget should not be cut to make up for the loss of local levy dollars.

Without a fiscal analysis, it's not clear how the new teacher salary approach would affect teacher salaries, but the plan would move the state toward local and regional teacher salaries. Salaries are already local, for the most part, since school districts are using levy dollars to pay teachers more than the state dollars allocated.

The proposal outlines a series of ramping up steps to move school districts toward this new model.

It says local levy money can be used to pay staffers for doing things other than basic education, and it does not affect current collective bargaining agreements.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island who is a co-sponsor of the measure, said in a prepared statement that the state must "reduce the current over-reliance on local funding for public education."

"We're laying our ideas on the table with full knowledge that this is a starting point for constructive discussions," she wrote. "It's our responsibility to step up and create an equitable system for all of our students and our educators. We look forward to working with the House and governor to get there."

The bill would establish a new group, the Washington Education Funding Council, to work out the other details of how to find more money for education. This is similar to the approach used in a proposal from the House.

Repeatedly throughout the proposal is a phrase about how these changes would not take effect if the Legislature doesn't find more money to pay for them by January 2018.

The bill also includes a lot of details about school district budget transparency, asking districts to share more information with the state and local taxpayers. It encourages the office of superintendent of public instruction to give each district a grade on how solvent it is.

The proposal is scheduled for a public hearing Thursday at 1:30 p.m. in the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

Rep. Ross Hunter, a Democrat from Medina who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he hadn't yet seen the latest proposal from the Senate but noted the lack of a funding source.

"This would make it hard to implement," he wrote in an email. "I think it's unlikely to pass in that form, but agree that we need to do something to create a process with enforceable deadlines (not just a study committee) to resolve a problem that I have been waving my hands about for the last 5 years."

This story has been corrected to show the bill says other parts of the state budget should not be cut to make up for the loss of local levy dollars. A previous version said the bill suggested state budget cuts will be needed.

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