In a Feb. 13 special election, Federal Way Public Schools will ask voters to approve a levy that would fund essential staff, educational programs and day-to-day operations beyond what the state provides for basic education.
The Federal Way School Board set the plan into motion at its Tuesday meeting by passing a resolution declaring its intentions and establishing the amount: $1.50 per assessed property valuation, not to exceed $33 million.
If approved by voters, the four-year educational programs and operations replacement levy — commonly called an EP&O levy — will replace Federal Way’s current $53 million levy set to expire in 2018.
The upcoming special election will mark the second time in less than a year that the school district has asked the taxpayers for money. In the Nov. 7 general election, Federal Way voters approved a construction bond worth $450 million that will rebuild several aging schools. Unlike the construction bond, the levy will go toward expenditures for learning.
Federal Way voters have approved an EP&O levy since 1980. Superintendent Dr. Tammy Campbell said the latest endeavor is a “continuation of a commitment to education.”
Voters are being asked to approve a levy that is $20 million less than the current one. This is because the state Legislature passed House Bill 2242, better known as the McCleary decision, which aims to reduce the burden being placed on taxpayers to fund basic education and place more of the responsibility upon the state through local education assistance funds.
Beginning in 2019, Federal Way school district taxpayers will see a significant basic education tax rate decrease from an estimated $3.58 per $1,000 assessed property valuation to the $1.50 per $1,000 valuation of the proposed levy.
The state is also increasing its education tax collection in 2018 for one year, which is why Federal Way taxpayers won’t see an immediate decrease.
As part of the McCleary decision, legislators set the cap of how much school districts could collect from taxpayers in local EP&O levies at $1.50 per assessed $1,000 property valuation or the amount required to fund basic education at $2,500 per student, whichever is less. While the district set the levy amount at $33 million per year, it is unlikely it will actually collect that total each year unless the city sees a spike in property valuation, Chief Finance Officer Sally McLean said.
Campbell acknowledged that some voters may be turned off at the idea of approving an educational levy so soon after agreeing to fund a construction bond, but the district has no choice.
“It was a risk we had to take,” she said.
As Campbell stressed in the recent successful construction bond effort, “bonds build buildings. Levies are for learning.” None of the levy funds will be used for buildings. In reality, she said, that would be impossible, as $33 million would only pay for one elementary school.
With the additional local education assistance funding from the state, the $33 million will pay for crucial services the school district currently offers. The EP&O levy pays for essential staff such as campus security officers, classroom teachers, nurses, counselors and bus drivers. It also pays for educational programs like special education and English language learner services. It also funds activities such as athletics and after-school programs, primarily through coaches and advisers. It also pays for some transportation costs, like fuel.
To illustrate how essential EP&O levies are to the school district, Campbell said state education funds only pay for three and a half nurses, which is far less than what a district the size of Federal Way requires.
For the Federal Way district, 77 percent of the levy funds are used for basic education staffing; 9 percent goes toward special education staff; 2 percent to English language learning; 5 percent to transportation; and 7 percent to athletics and activities.
“That’s an important part of school for many scholars,” Campbell said of athletics and activities. “For some, that’s the only reason why they come to school.”
The additional state funding for basic education coming from the McCleary decision is estimated at a net gain of $19.4 million in 2018-19, $12.7 million in 2020 and $6 million in 2021. But even with the EP&O levy, the Federal Way school district will not be adding any staffing or programs, Campbell said. The total amount will allow the district to retain the current programs and staffing levels while helping to ensure staff retention by providing for increases in salary.
Should the levy not pass, the loss to the Federal Way school district would be substantial, Campbell said. The approximately $33 million the school district could collect represents about 300 full-time equivalent employees or about 10 percent of the district’s general operations budget.