In February 2020 the voters in the Woodland School District (WA) turned down a levy request. There was considerable confusion about the amount, how the money would be spent and the process. We began a series of efforts to get some answers. The district is holding a special election in April 2020 asking a 2nd time for approval. They need 50% + 1 to pass. This blog post shares what we learned.
Q1: What is the levy amount proposed? Answer: $2.37/$1000 of assessed property value
Q2: Is this an increase and if so how much and when did the increase happen? Answer: Yes it’s an increase. In the 2018 time frame the State Legislature increased state school property taxes. Depending on the County the increase appears to have been anywhere from $.78/$1000 to almost $1/$1000. As part of that State increase in taxes (the money was to go to the local districts) the legislature REDUCED local levy taxes to a maximum of $1.50/$1000. The intent was to “trade” local for state leaving the property owner with little or no increase in net school taxes. However…the Teachers Unions decided that the state tax increase money to districts should really belong to them. Teachers went on strike in some districts. In the end districts across the State ended up negotiating wage increases from ~12% to 22% (depending on the district). According to an article in the Columbian dated August 14, 2018, the teachers Union for Woodland:
- Woodland Public Schools and the Woodland Education Association came to an agreement during a bargaining session Sunday night that would give the teachers a 22.82 percent increase on their base salary. In the upcoming school year, first-year teachers in the district with no professional experience can make $46,600 and a teacher with a master’s degree and 90 credits teaching for 16 years or more can make $87,832. For the 2019-2020 school year, those salaries jump to $48,676 and $91,746, respectively.
The money from the increase in State school property taxes went to teachers…instead of going into the operating budget for the district. What does that mean? Answer: It means that the Woodland SD spent more than they had so they needed more money. Please note that Woodland is NOT unique in this regard. School Boards across the State did the same thing leaving them all in deficit situations. So what to do? During the August 2019 budget cycle the Woodland School Board increased spending. Since the legislature increased the $1.50 cap to $2.50 during the summer the school board was legally allowed to increase the levy without notifying the public nor saying anything. Why? How? If the last levy approved by voters was at or above $2.50/$1000 then the Board of Directors could unilaterally increase the levy. And…that’s exactly what they did.
WoodlandSD 2-14-17_Spec_Elec_results The file in the link on the left shows the results of the last levy (2017) which was used as the basis for the 2019/2020 increase.
Woodland_Certification_2019 The pdf file in the link on the left is from the Cowlitz Treasurer. You can see that by increasing the budget by an amount that kept it under the $2.50 cap the Board didn’t even need to “vote” on the increase because by approving the budget they approved the levy increase. This allows them, in 2020, to ask for a new levy at a rate of $2.37 and claim that it’s NOT an increase.
Q3: Can the Board legally slip this increase in without telling the public? Answer: Yes. Here is the RCW Code that the Cowlitz County Treasurer provided: RCW_84.52.0531 Here is the guidance from OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction: OSPI_ltr_to_Assessors_for_2020 By legislative law any School Board can increase the levy amount without telling or consulting with the public and taxpayers if the increase can be justified by the last levy vote and staying under the $2.50 cap. Whether a Board should do that without saying anything is a moral judgement.
Q4: Is Woodland unique in the way the levy increase was slipped into the last budget without a notice or vote? Answer: Nope. The Battle Ground District Board did the exact same thing…except they raised theirs from $1.50 to $2.50.
For the record here’s the email strings we went through trying to get this information:
- We emailed the Woodland Board of Directors individually 2x (March 4th and March 10th) and never got a response. Here’s what we asked:
The legislature imposed a cap of $1.50/$1000 of assessed value on Jan 1, 2019. Later in 2019 the legislature increased the cap to $2.50/$1000 (max) IF the last voter approved levy was $2.50 or higher.1) Did the Woodland School Board increase the levy from $1.50 to $2.37 following the legislature change? If yes when and what was the process? That is, was the public notified of the increase and if so any details would be appreciated. Or, did the Board impose the change unilaterally and if so what was the process?2) If the Board did impose that increase is that the basis for saying that this is a replacement levy and is not an increase?Any other relevant information would be appreciated. Information will be shared in a blog article at www.swweducation.org
When we didn’t get a response we emailed the Woodland Superintendent. Following is what we asked and his responses:
In January 2019 the legislature imposed a limit on local school district levies of $1.50/$1000. This was amended later in the year (2019) when the legislature increased that cap to $2.50/$1000. If a school district’s last voter approved levy was more than $2.50/$1000 the district/school board had the legal right to increase the $1.50 up to $2.50 (or less if the last approved was above $1.50 but at or under $2.50). You and I and the board know all of this (please feel free to correct anything you think is misstated or incorrect)Q1: Did the district/board of directors increase the Enrichment Levy from $1.50/$1000 of assessed value to $2.37/$1000? No.Q2: If the answer to #1 is yes when did that occur and under what circumstances? That is, at what meeting. I would like a copy of the transcript/notes for that meeting and action. All school board briefing docuemnts and minutes are available online at https://district.
woodlandschools.org/board/ archiveQ3: If the increase to $2.37 did happen was the public notified of the action, consulted or otherwise queried and if so how and when (details please). If the public was not notified or consulted why not? The rate was based on a voter approved levyBased on the district/boards statement regarding the levy not increasing is it accurate to say that that statement is being made because the levy increase was already made as noted in the prior questions? The estimates of the 2021 levy rate are based on the rate derived from the voter approved 2020 levy.
Because the answers didn’t answer the questions we then filed a Public Information Request with the Cowlitz Treasurer asking for information regarding the increase from $1.50 to $2.37. Those documents are provided earlier in this article.
- There was an increase from $1.50 to $2.37 as part of the 2019/2020 budget process
- There is no legal requirement for a school board to notify the public nor ask for approval if the rules are followed and the prior levy cap was under the revised $2.50 cap rules
- The levy “ask” is indeed NOT an increase…technically…given that it was part of the 2019/2020 budget. That’s why the answers from the district were the way they were.
Hopefully, no matter how you vote (but please DO vote) you will have a bit more information to help you make your decision.