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Why state budget cuts may affect poor districts the most



Posted on December 2, 2010 at 7:47 PM

Seventh-grade teacher Adrienne McKay knows that the state’s budget problems will somehow affect her classroom—-she just doesn’t know how.

“We worry about it, as far as our jobs,” McKay says.

State budget director Marty Brown warns that the budget ax is about to fall.  "We're going to be talking about levy equalization, school districts are going to get nailed,” Brown said.

In the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing more about “levy equalization,” also called “local effort assistance.”

School districts get about 80% of their funding from the state and federal governments.  On average, about 16% comes from your local property taxes.  That has always been a problem because it’s easier for some school districts to raise money than others.

Simply put, a district that has a lot of expensive homes and commercial property can collect more in property taxes.  So back in the late 80s, lawmakers created “levy equalization,” giving more state money directly to poor districts where property values are lower.

One of the 200 districts getting money is Federal Way, where Adrienne McKay teaches science.  Roughly half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.  A lot of the housing is apartments; the average home value is $200,000.  For this school district, levy equalization from the state means an extra $6 million a year.

"Six million dollars pays for almost a hundred teachers, if you want to think about it that way," said Sally McLean, assistant Superintendent.

By law, the state’s funding for basic education is constitutionally protected.  What is not protected from cuts are things like class-size reduction, teacher raises, extra funding for K-4, and levy equalization.  Ironic that when the state needs to cut its budget, poor school districts are the most vulnerable.

"We just believe that it's morally and socially wrong to widen the gap between what I call the haves and the have nots,” McLean said.

Federal Way isn’t the only district scrambling.  In King County, this extra state funding goes to six school districts; 10 districts in Snohomish County; 12 districts in Pierce—and many more in rural areas.

The last thing Federal Way wants to do is cut teachers.  So how might it deal with losing levy equalization?  "With a lot of hard work, a lot of conversation, lot of tears,” McLean says.