Vancouver Public Schools appears unlikely this year to take advantage of changes to state law that would allow it to run an additional property tax levy, despite concerns over a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.
At a recent work session, the Vancouver Public Schools Board of Directors tentatively laid out a plan to ask voters next February to approve a supplemental levy of no more than 51 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value, collecting as much as $11.75 million annually. The district plans to conduct a community survey prior to running the levy.
The Legislature this past session raised the cap on local school levies from $1.50 to $2.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value, or at a level that would raise $2,500 per pupil, whichever leads to lower levy rates. It’s continued fallout from the McCleary decision, the landmark school funding lawsuit that determined the state was failing to fund basic education. Although the state Supreme Court ruled last year that the Legislature succeeded in meeting its constitutional duty to fully fund public schools, districts across the state are grappling this year with deficits in the millions of dollars.
Vancouver Public Schools has scaled back its original $16.8 million in projected spending cuts to $8 million, due in large part to about $6.5 million in additional, one-time state money. The district made staff cuts to compensate for declining enrollment. The district’s general fund budget is about $324 million.
The district is also spending $3.75 million from its reserve fund. Even so, the district is cutting more than $4 million in expenses. That includes 5 percent cuts in its central office for $1.2 million in savings, a 15 percent reduction in central office administrative positions for an $800,000 savings, and cutting travel for professional development in half, for a $400,000 savings. Teaching and counseling positions above adjusting for declining enrollment, meanwhile, were taken off the table for cuts this year.
“As we’ve heard loud and clear through our public engagement and budget input process, the Vancouver community has come to expect these supports and services for its children and public schools,” Superintendent Steve Webb said at a work session.
Still, Webb added, the district will need to reckon with that $10.31 million in one-time funding in 2020-2021, and a district advisory board warned that Vancouver’s budget may be unsustainable without new funding.
Running a 51-cent levy, therefore, would effectively fill that gap.
But school board members are hesitant to rush to ask for a supplemental levy, saying voters are likely tax-fatigued after school funding whiplash in recent years.
“My concern is I just feel like we always keep shifting the legislative responsibility back to the taxpayer,” said Rosemary Fryer, who is retiring from the school board at the end of this year.
Clark County’s other largest school districts have also not rushed to lift their local levies. Evergreen Public Schools, like Vancouver, would have to run a supplemental levy to add to its current levy of about $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value. But Superintendent Mike Merlino said at a recent budget forum that doing so “wasn’t a real option,” and that the district is focused on “rebuilding relationships” with its families.
Battle Ground Public Schools could theoretically lift its levy lid without a public vote. Voters in that district approved a four-year levy in 2017 at a rate of about $3.66 per $1,000 in assessed value, but since had to cap that levy due to the state’s new school funding model. The district could decide to lift that levy up to the $2.50 now allowed by state law, but hasn’t yet discussed that possibility, district spokeswoman Rita Sanders said.
The Battle Ground school board has a budget work session scheduled on Monday.