‘Levy cliff' prompts Seattle Public Schools to create budget cuts

by: Natasha Chen Updated:

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The Seattle Public Schools board met Wednesday to create a "worst-case scenario" budget, acknowledging a $74 million shortfall due to what educators call inaction at the state Legislature.

School district staff told KIRO 7 that nearly a decade ago, state lawmakers created a deadline for themselves to shift the funding of schools from local to a heavier emphasis on state dollars.

That deadline, or "levy cliff’" is approaching, as some school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, are required to begin scaling back next school year on the amount they collect in local levies. However, lawmakers have not formed a solution on fully funding education from state dollars, creating a potential gap in the interim.

“This is not a new problem. The Legislature has continuously delayed and delayed and delayed, because they, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to take action,” said Stephen Nielsen, deputy superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.

If the Legislature does not extend the levy cliff, Seattle Public Schools will lose $30 million in local levies for the coming school year.

The remaining $44 million gap is due to lack of state funding to pay employees.

KIRO 7 asked Nielsen how the district decided on its compensation scale, without knowing if the state dollars would be there to cover it.

“The fact that we agreed to something -- that had [the state Legislature] funded on their own mathematical formulas, we’d be OK today – that’s a pretty safe risk, until they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

Nielsen referred to a Washington Supreme Court order requiring legislators to amply fund basic education. Legislators are currently being fined $100,000 a day for not completing the task.

Currently, SPS plans to dip into savings, cut programs, increase class sizes, and reduce a couple hundred positions.

Those positions would include teaching staff, other school staff and central administration.

Phyllis Campano, a special education teacher and president of the Seattle Education Association, said teachers and the district are in unity on this subject.

“If you continue to starve a system, what do you expect to happen?” Campano said.

Because Seattle Public Schools needs to complete its budget by February 28, the district cannot wait for the current legislative session to try to resolve the problem.

House Bill 1059 currently aims to delay the levy cliff by one year. Even if this is approved, districts like Seattle would need to change their budgets right before classes are set to begin, potentially triggering last-minute hires and changes to teacher assignments.

“We need to know who’s going to be working here, because if we wait until July, we may not get enough teachers,” Campano said.

 

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