The 2008 legislative session concluded in March, culminating with the passage of a supplemental state operating budget that left more than $850 million in reserves. As the second-highest reserve amount in legislative history, it leaves the state positioned to mitigate any effects from a national recession.
One issue the legislature did not take up this time is property taxes. A short, 60-day session does not allow for sweeping policy changes, but there were some behind-the-scenes steps taken that could help stabilize and ultimately reduce property taxes while at the same time meet our growing education needs.
These outcomes would be good for business in the state.
For some time, Washington’s funding of school construction has been inadequate. Through the state capital budget, we have provided matching funds to school districts for projects, whether to renovate existing structures or build new facilities.
The problem is that the state’s “match” is actually between 25 and 30 percent of local cost, not half as originally intended. Because we’ve been falling behind in meeting our match grant obligations, school districts are repeatedly forced to ask their voters for larger construction bond measures to make up the difference. This adds to the local property tax burden for both individuals and business.
Now, a third of the Evergreen School District’s students are in portable buildings. These structures were originally intended as a stop-gap solution to the rapid growth experienced by the district, not permanent fixtures on school campuses. Yet years after being erected they remain because the district lacks sufficient state funding to build permanent classroom space.
Further strain on school district facilities is also directly tied to policies established by the legislature. The state must also improve funding for the construction of such critical structures as science and computer labs. Today’s high-demand careers emphasize math, science and technology, whether it’s in engineering or the trades, such as electronics.
If we’re going to fill Washington jobs with Washington graduates, we need to make sure our students are well-prepared in the subjects they need to be successful beyond high school.
The solution is to get the state matching grants back up to around 50 percent. We started the process back in 2007 with the formation of the Joint Legislative Task Force on School Construction Funding. This committee drew up a list of recommendations that were released in January.
A significant number of the recommendations were funded in this year’s supplemental budget, including the study of making the current School Construction Assistance Formula more transparent and researching other potential funding sources.
During the legislative interim, the committee will continue to work on recommendations to the next legislature to improve the level of state funding for this important need. Agendas from these meetings and other documents can be viewed by the public online at https://www.leg.wa.gov/Joint/Committees/K12SCF.
Any plan to reform and reduce the property tax burden on local communities should include increased state financial support for school construction. This will reduce school districts’ reliance on local funding for school buildings.
If we implement the recommendations of the school construction task force, we’ll not only meet our matching grant obligations, but also build the kinds of facilities necessary to educate a 21st Century workforce.
The combination of lower taxes and a highly skilled labor pool would, I’m sure, be met with great enthusiasm by the business community.
Bill Fromhold has been a state representative of the 49th District for eight years. He is retiring and will be executive director of Vancouver-based Mentoring Advanced Placement.