School levies: more power to the people

I more than enjoy poking my finger in the eye of the Seattle Times editorial board, but the truth is, I often agree with many of their editorials. For instance, today’s editorial, “Let voters decide school-levy rules,” is not only dead on the money, it is particularly well reasoned and argued.

Maybe if politicians had to be elected by a 60-percent supermajority, they’d be quicker to understand the unfair burden such a requirement imposes on school levies.

[…] Nearly all of the state’s 296 districts rely on levy funds, some for 18 to 21 percent of their operating budgets. In Seattle, the levy accounts for 25 percent of the district’s budget.

The state ought to fund education better, but until it does, levy funds will make or break a district’s budget. It is unfair that a minority of citizens can punish a school system. Yet it happens. Several years ago, a levy in the Arlington School District failed with 59.7 percent of the vote. The majority of citizens said yes and still the district had to spend additional money and time on a second campaign.

Yesterday, Seattle voters once again approved new school levies by a comfortable margin, but had one or both failed with only 59-point-something percent of the vote, folks like our friend Stefan at (un)Sound Politics would undoubtedly be kvelling over their huge political victory. Think about it. In any other election this would be considered a landslide, but when it comes to school levies our constitution transforms a near 20-point margin into a public rebuke.

The same sort of folks who condemn raising the initiative filing from $5 to $100 as an unprincipled attack on direct democracy want the fate of our schools to rest in the hands of only 40-percent-plus-one of the electorate? Huh? It just doesn’t make any sense that funding our children’s education should be made more difficult than nearly any other democratic exercise.

And as the Times points out, this whole issue is about democracy.

Changing the levy rules requires amending the state constitution; voters will ultimately decide this issue — that is, if the Legislature passes the bill and gives voters a chance.

[…] Voters have a stake in this. The Senate ought to let them speak.

The legislature doesn’t have the final say on this, the people do. Our state Constitution prescribes that any amendment must ultimately be approved by a simple majority of voters. It is time to let the people decide if the same rules should apply to school levy elections.

Comments

  1. 1

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    The problem with the straight majority concept is that you get enough students and childless renters voting for school levies they think someone else will pay for that the 60% supermajority is necessary for 50% of the actual taxpayers to be able to reject a levy.

  2. 3

    spews:

    “Maybe if politicians had to be elected by a 60-percent supermajority, they’d be quicker to understand the unfair burden such a requirement imposes on school levies.

    Now this is a tempting thought. Yes, it’s a bad idea, and would never work in any sort of practical sense, but it is still very tempting.

    Roger Rabbit(?) says:

    The problem with the straight majority concept is that you get enough students and childless renters voting for school levies they think someone else will pay for that the 60% supermajority is necessary for 50% of the actual taxpayers to be able to reject a levy.

    The question mark is because this does not sound like Roger. It isn’t well thought out.

    Childless couples are far less likely to vote for a school levy, as their tax dollars are going to an activity that they will derive no immediate or direct benefit from. Yes, I believe that it is in their best interest to support education, but some childless folks do not see it that way.

    And while not all renters understand that landlords tend to treat property taxes as a “pass-through” expense, most of them are smart enough to figure that out.

    So, Roger. Are you just having an off day, or is someone playing games?

  3. 4

    Truth_Teller spews:

    I’d be happy to vote for democracy and remove the 60% rule if the “other side”, those running the levy elections, would also show some faith in democracy and put levy issues on general election ballots (that is, in November in even numbered years). Running stealth elections in February so that the fewest number of people possible vote is simply undemocratic.

  4. 5

    spews:

    Truth_Teller said:

    “I’d be happy to vote for democracy and remove the 60% rule if the “other side”, those running the levy elections, would also show some faith in democracy and put levy issues on general election ballots (that is, in November in even numbered years). Running stealth elections in February so that the fewest number of people possible vote is simply undemocratic”

    Ah, here is a legitimate argument for the supermajority, and maybe even a basis for discussion and compromise.

    There is a provision in the current law that addresses this, as you not only must get to the 60% mark, but you must have enough votes to “validate” the election. There have been levies that have gone over 60% but did not have enough votes to validate.

    The Pierce County Auditor explains this here:

    http://www.piercecountywa.org/.....tified.htm

    The threshhold is that at least 40% of the total number of voters in the previous General Election are required to validate a special election. Perhaps the answer is to raise the threshhold and lower the supermajority.

  5. 6

    Tree Frog Farmer spews:

    JohnBarelli@3 Said:

    Well, as a couple, we “don’t have a dog in this fight” but we vote for school levies.
    I want an educated and informed populace around me. I don’t want to have to instruct store clerks in how to make change. I grow tired of improper spelling and grammar in my newspaper. I say, support the schools.

  6. 7

    Tree Frog Farmer spews:

    Oops, the quote was:Childless couples are far less likely to vote for a school levy, as their tax dollars are going to an activity that they will derive no immediate or direct benefit from.

  7. 10

    Lefties Love Islamo-Nutjob\'s spews:

    QUICK! Gilderstein, hold a PLEDGE-A-THON!

    Air America Fire Sale

    Documents: Bankrupt liberal radio network to sell for $4.25 million

    FEBRUARY 7–Bankrupt and about to lose Al Franken, its marquee star, Air America Radio is set to change hands for the bargain price of $4.25 million, according to new court documents. The sales figure was disclosed in a purchase agreement filed yesterday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York. According to the agreement, the deal between Air America\’s owner, Piquant LLC, and a firm controlled by Stephen L. Green, a New York realtor, calls for Green\’s firm to repay up to $3.25 million in loans provided to Air America after the liberal radio network filed for Chapter 11 protection last October (the company listed debts of $20.2 million). Green\’s company will also give Piquant LLC $500,000 and pay off up to $500,000 in network debts (the bulk of which, $349,000, is owed to the network\’s Manhattan landlord). Green\’s bid topped by more than $1.25 million the nearest offer received by Air America, according to a motion filed along with the purchase agreement. An excerpt from that motion can be found below. Court documents do not specify how many bids were received for the network, though a filing notes that \”more than ten interested parties\” signed nondisclosure agreements and were allowed to review confidential network financial and corporate records. While Green controls the corporation purchasing Air America, two of the firms that were pre-bankruptcy investors in the radio network will \”collectively own a minority interest\” in the Green company. The Air America purchase is expected to be finalized at a court hearing in the next week. Franken, who is planning to run next year for a U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota, is scheduled to do his final Air America show on February 14.

    Documents here: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/a.....rica1.html

  8. 11

    spews:

    Some people aren’t quite so selfish, narrow minded, or foolish.

    Here’s one childless renter who supports tax dollars being spent for the betterment of students in public schools. Our future. My landlord of 13 years passes on his tax increases with due regularity.

    Supermajority/validation requirements allow non-voters to cast a negative ballot simply by not showing up at the polls (or mailing in a ballot, as the case may be.) As a child, my idiot step-father practiced this approach every time a school levy came up for a vote. If memory serves, in my twelve years of public schooling in this state, my home-town failed to pass operating levies two or three times. It’s time for a simple majority for levies.

  9. 12

    spews:

    Laurence Ballard said:

    “Supermajority/validation requirements allow non-voters to cast a negative ballot simply by not showing up at the polls (or mailing in a ballot, as the case may be.) As a child, my idiot step-father practiced this approach every time a school levy came up for a vote. If memory serves, in my twelve years of public schooling in this state, my home-town failed to pass operating levies two or three times. It’s time for a simple majority for levies.

    I’m not sure that I’ll go that far. The validation requirements seem to be pretty reasonable, and the full wording is that at least 60% of that total validation number must approve.

    So, when your step-father refused to vote, it was really no different than if he had voted “no”.

    Essentially, if there are enough “yes” votes to equal the passing number for a valid election, the measure passes even though the total number of votes was under 40%.

    Example:

    If 100,000 people voted in the last general election, then 40% (40,000) is the validation level for a special election.

    If there are at least 24,000 “yes” votes (60% of 40,000), the measure passes the validation requirement, even if only 24,001 people vote.

    I’ve got no problem with that 40% requirement, as it prevents “stealth” elections where only a handful of voters make decisions binding on everyone. I have seen special elections held at times when it made perfect sense to simply add the question on to a general election ballot.

    Perhaps the answer is to retain the supermajority and validation requirements for special elections, but have a simple majority for general elections.

  10. 13

    spews:

    Mr. Barelli,

    Thank you for raising those points. Although I’m not exactly certain what a “stealth” election is, or would be. Nor how such a critter would successfully be pulled off in this state, given the incumbent technology of the internet, if nothing else. However, I don’t have any problem with a handful of voters – if only a handful bother to vote – making decisions. Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

    I’m more drawn to your idea of re-examining the definition of a ‘special election’ vs. ‘general election.’ Especially given the all-around mess this ‘advisory’ vote in Seattle on ‘what to do with the viaduct?’ is likely to be- given the fact that perhaps 30-40% of voters will be voting by mail for the very first time. There will be many, many challenged ballots, all for an election that may or may not mean anything.

  11. 14

    spews:

    Just to clarify, the operations levy requires a three-fifths supermajority and either a turnout equal to at least 40-percent of the turnout in the last general election, or failing that, a “yes” vote greater than three-fifths of 40 percent of the turnout in the last general election.

    The capital levy requires a three-fifths supermajority and a turnout equal to at least 40-percent that of the last general election.

    As of now the operations levy has qualified. The capital levy has yet to hit the turnout requirement.

  12. 15

    spews:

    Mr. Ballard:

    I’ve seen examples of elections where the electorate was rather poorly notified. In reality, I’m more concerned about other types of special elections. Most of the school levy folks are (my opinion) reasonably honest and wouldn’t deliberately mislead people in an election. Other potential levy initiatve supporters might not be so honest.

    I’ve supported every school levy that has ever come past me on a ballot, and have gone further in opening my office in the evening to allow supporters to use our phones in “getting out the vote”.

    While I acknowledge the temptation to say that if someone is so ill-informed that they don’t keep track of elections, then their vote shouldn’t count, I think that it’s important to resist that temptation. If supporters of a levy cannot even meet the validation requirements, then maybe we need to take a long, hard look at that levy and the folks running that campaign.

  13. 16

    rhp6033 spews:

    Just a reminder to the “childless” couples, who think that school levies don’t benefit them:

    That eighteen-year old who just graduated from the Seattle Public School system is about to cast a ballot in a general election. His/Her vote is equally weighted with yours. If he/she votes opposite the way you do, then your vote has essentially been cancelled out. If you and your neighbors all vote on opposite sides of each issue, cancelling out each other’s vote, that eighteen year old will decide the election.

    Now, just how well educated and informed do you wish that eighteen-year-old voter to be?

  14. 17

    spews:

    Goldy (at 1:47 PM, as the post numbers tend to change) makes a very good point.

    The rules for a levy (for operations and ongoing expenses) are different from a bond issue (for capital expenditures). That’s a problem, as it allows a “stay home from the polls” campaign to work.

    If the supporters can manage to get a sufficient number of “yes” votes to meet the magic number that would pass in a validated election, then the election should be valid.

    People stay home from the polls at their peril.

  15. 19

    Richard Pope spews:

    Rather than get 2/3 of the legislature to amend the state constitution, why not get 50.001% of the legislature to fix the school funding inequities? Property rich places such as Bellevue and Seattle only need a small levy rate to provide the maximum amount of local funding that the law will allow. Other districts in property poor areas of the state can’t even get half of the allowable local funding, even will super-high local levy rates.

    Basically, this whole thing is a sham argument.

  16. 20

    Richard Pope spews:

    Article 7, Section 2 of the state constitution requires a 60% supermajority for “special” tax levies, because local school districts are not granted any “regular” tax levy authority under state statutes.

    School districts are not granted any “regular” tax levy authority under state statutes, because the state is supposed to be funding the entire “basic education” needs of school districts, without the need to raise any money locally.

    So the local tax levies are defined as “special” levies, instead of “regular” levies, since the money is supposed to go to luxuries, instead of “basic education” needs.

    In reality, the quality of education at the local level would really suck if school districts were forced to rely solely on state “basic education” funding (and federal dollars).

    So this entire argument is a sham. It is simply an excuse for the state to avoid its responsibilities to provide adequate “basic education” funding under Article 9, Section 1 of the constitution. In reality, local districts have to supplement this state “basic education” money (which keeps declining each year, after adjustment for inflation, on a per student basis).

    The Democrat solution to the problem? Provide more state money for “basic education”? Of course not! Instead, require more funding to be raised at the local level and make it easier for the school districts to impose these taxes.

    Of course, the Democrats could always change state law, and allow local school districts “regular” tax levy authority under state statutes. That way, the school board could impose whatever property tax the law permitted, and do so without any vote whatsoever by the people. And no change to the state constitution would be required.

    But the Democrats would be admitting that state “basic education” money was woefully inadequate. Hence, the charade of “special” local school property tax levies, some sort of election to allow their imposition, and now amending the state constitution to make the elections easier to win.

  17. 21

    Richard Pope spews:

    And the Democrats prefer to have gross inequities in local school district funding. It is beneficial to the areas of the state where the Democrats are strongest.

    Democrat areas like Seattle, Mercer Island and Bellevue have relatively few public school students per capita (smaller families, fewer families with school age children, and higher percentage in private schools), while they have a higher amount of taxable property per capita (wealthy homes, valuable commercial property, etc.). So the amount of taxable property per public school student is rather high, and the local levy rate for a given level of school funding would be much lower.

    By contrast, Kennewick (a strongly Republican area) has only 1/6 of the taxable property per public school student that Seattle has. Kennewick has more families with children, fewer private school students, more modestly valued homes, and not nearly so much commercial property. Some rural districts (also strongly Republican) are even worse off than Kennewick. A place like Kennewick can impose three times the local levy rate that Seattle does, but only raise half the amount of money per student.

    This is why Republicans in the legislature push for statewide equalization of school funding, while Democrats push for simply making it easier for school districts to impose local property tax levies.

  18. 22

    John Barelli spews:

    Actually, Richard, I think that most of the Democrats would be pretty happy to have the ability to adequately fund basic education. Of course, if we raised the taxes to be able to do that (even though we’d simply be taxing at the current rate including special levies), the Republicans would scream bloody murder about “tax-and-spend”, and “interfering with local authority”.

    Still, I think that if we could get some sort of bi-partisan effort going, so that we could do what we all consider the right thing to do, while not letting the Speaker’s Roundtable try to hand us our asses for doing it, there would be considerable support for that initiative.

  19. 23

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @3 Yes, that’s a real Roger Rabbit post, and as far as how well thought out it is, I don’t claim to have hard figures in front of me. However, over the years I’ve often heard the complaint that homeowners are taxed for measures passed in part with the votes of people who don’t pay property taxes. I don’t know what the origin of the supermajority rule is, but obviously not everyone pays property taxes and it seems reasonable to assume that people are more likely to vote for higher taxes if they know (or believe) someone else will get stuck with the bill. The argument in favor of the supermajority rule is that it offsets these votes so that levies can’t pass without a majority vote for the homeowners who will actually pay the tax. That seems fair to me. In particular, senior citizens on fixed incomes like me who worry about inflation and getting taxed out of their homes should not have their pockets emptied by people who won’t have to pay for these things voting for them.

    I’m certianly not against schools or education! However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues with levies. School administrators, like other public officials, may be tempted to gold-plate a levy and it may take a rejection at the polls to get them to pare it down to more reasonable size (and for more reasonable purposes). There are many questions surrounding construction levies, not the least of which is the tendency of school administrators to charge us for expensive new buildings, then let those buildings fall apart. Ever notice the first thing cut in school budgets is maintenance, repairs, and janitorial services? This is like buying an expensive home you can’t afford to maintain; you should have bought something more affordable so that you’d have enough money left over to keep it up.

    School levies aren’t sacrosanct just beause they have the word “school” attached to them. Even those of us who support public schools and are willing to spend money to provide our kids with good education have the right to examine school district budgets, question whether the taxes we’re being asked to pay are truly necessary, and delve into whether the money is being spent prudently. The word “school” just not immunize school administrators from a requirement of good management and good stewardship of our tax dollars, especially when paying those taxes is painful and results in personal needs of the taxpayer going unmet. For some of us, the money we pay in school taxes is not money that would go to luxury spending if we didn’t have to pay those taxes.

    On the flip side, I just don’t see a huge problem with the supermajority rule. I don’t see it being abused to hold school districts hostage to political agendas. I’ve never heard of anyone saying, “we’re going to defeat your operating levy at the polls until you agree to teach Creation in the schools.” I don’t see operating levies going down to defeat right and left, except during times of economic stress when unemployment is high and people throughout the community are struggling to make ends me. It’s unfortunate, but entirely appropriate, for voters to ask schools to cut back when their households are forced to cut back on things like food and heat. People who can’t pay the mortgage are not being unreasonable when they ask school officials to bite the same economic bullet that’s afflicting everyone else. I’ve lived in this community for 40 years and school levies have generally gotten the required supermajorities during the times that people weren’t hurting economically.

    The argument also has been made that making levies easier to pass will remove pressure and incentive for long term fixes to our tax system. I don’t go along with that rationale. I think the only justifications for the supermajority rule are the ones I mentioned in this post.

  20. 25

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @4 Yes, school districts play such games, but a hard-and-fast rule putting all levies on general election ballots is unworkable. The timing of general elections is a problem. In addition, if a levy is defeated, a district should be able to resubmit a pared-down version to voters without waiting a year until the next general election.

  21. 26

    jsa on commercial drive spews:

    Richard @ 15:33:

    First, remember that the current financing method was set up by a 1976 Supreme Court decision that said that the clause in the State Constitution which says that education is the primary responsibility of the state meant that the state had to pony up.

    I have a friend who was involved in the legislation that came out of that decision. He has made some fairly disparaging remarks about that legislation in the past. We don’t cross paths often. I’ve been dying to ask him “so what exactly happened there?”. When I get an answer, I’ll post it.

    In the mean time, boosting the state’s share of the revenue pie by legislative fiat would be a short-term nightmare. Remember that every district in the state has an operations levy like Seattle’s. Some are 2 year, some are 3 year, and their terms all lapse at different times. You would essentially wind up with a 200-way fight between the districts so that nobody will be overtaxed or underfunded while the funding transitions from the old allocation scheme to the new one.

    While this plays out over 3 years, every single state legislator and half the senators would have to stand for election.

    It’s a good idea (even if it doesn’t benefit me personally). Implementing it would be poisonous beyond words.

  22. 27

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @12 “So, when your step-father refused to vote, it was really no different than if he had voted ‘no’.”

    Actually, that’s not true. By casting a “no” voting you help the levy meet the validation requirement, and many levies have no problem getting 60%. A lot of the “no” voters stay home precisely because experience has taught them that it’s easier to defeat a levy that way than by voting against it.

  23. 28

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    There seems to be an assumption by some posters that childless voters are more likely to vote against levies. I think there are two separate groups of childless voters who vote in opposite ways. Childless homeowners paying property taxes may indeed be more likely to vote “no.” However, I believe students, unmarried young people, senior citizens in nursing homes, and others who do not contemplate having children of their own in school in the future, but who also don’t pay property taxes (at least not directly) are more likely to vote “yes” because (a) it’s a “noble” cause, and (b) they won’t pay the tax. For them, “yes” is an easy feel-good vote that costs them nothing. Now I have a confession to make — I’m guilty as dirt of that myself; I always voted FOR school levies when I was a poor student living in $20-a-month basement rooms in flophouses.

  24. 29

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @19 Richard, if a legislative solution was as easy as you make it sound, wouldn’t it have been done a long time ago?

  25. 30

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @21 “And the Democrats prefer to have gross inequities in local school district funding. It is beneficial to the areas of the state where the Democrats are strongest.”

    This is not like you, Richard. This is shrill. And stupid. And false.

  26. 31

    GS spews:

    Yeh Think about it, Every voter’s vote should be counted, but the Democraps are hot on the trail to throw out the people’s initiative process, and ready to throw out 20 valid voters signatures, if the individual gathering the signatures, forgets to sign the back of the form.

    Imagine that, from the count every legal voter gang…..

    Hipocraps

  27. 32

    harry tuttle spews:

    If one pays rent, they pay property taxes. To be in favor of the supermajority, is just a desire to give cheapskates weighted votes.

    I think the turnout requirement if fair, though.

  28. 33

    skagit spews:

    I’m with Roger on this. “School” isn’t sacrosanct. It needs to be accountable. And I never felt the effects of tax increases as a renter nearly as much as I do as an owner.

    Some of you would say, well naturally. But, sorry . . . the increases are spread much thinner than on individual homeowners who are apparently responsible for funding everything.

    As a teacher, I can tell you Seattle Schools needs to be overhauled.

  29. 35

    spews:

    Turns out the turnout “problem” won’t be a problem at all.

    As reported by King County Elections, the capital levy (Prop.1) required turnout of 90,873 in yesterday’s election. For the operating levy (Prop.2), it took 54,524 YES votes (60% of the above turnout number).

    The latter is already well in hand — through the Wednesday count, there were 61,471 YES ballots. As for the capital levy, the Wednesday vote-count came to 86,104, a mere 4769 ballots short of the required number. With 90,446 absentee ballots already in-hand (not all counted yet), plus the poll votes cast yesterday — to say nothing of the absentee ballots still coming in through the USPS — Prop.1 will zoom past its threshold tomorrow.

    With about 70% support … a resounding victory for education.

  30. 36

    David spews:

    I’ve owned numerous pieces of property in my lifetime. And I’ll always vote for levies.

    Where I grew up, the levies did not pass for many, many years. We had school buildings that were falling apart, food in the cafeteria a starving dog wouldn’t have eaten, reference books in the library that were from the 1850’s and discussed what would happen if the train went too fast (50 mph) and you opened a window (you would be sucked outside along with everything in the car you were in) textbooks that stopped years before Hiroshima; but first and foremost, I will remember the frogs.

    In Biology the day came to dissect frogs. They brought us the frogs in embalming fluid. They had had the same frogs for years. They had been already dissected by previous classes over the years and most of them had no organs left. The teacher gave us a mimeographed sheet with a line drawing of what we would see if we actually had a frog to dissect rather than an empty amphibian and a couple of colored pencils. We colored in the lines.

    It’s not just that the kid with the education might effect the childless couple with their vote; it’s that the kid with the education might fix their car, design the airplane they are flying in, become the doctor that takes care of them when they’re sick.

    Or, we can just hire in guest workers from foreign countries that have been raised in countries where they care about education.