Tri-Cities school districts are searching for more money. One is considering raising taxes

Taxpayers in the Richland School District could see higher property taxes in 2020 as a result of how the levy voters approved in 2018 was worded.

The district is considering an increase of $1 per $1,000 of property value to help it bring its budget into balance and avoid layoffs.

The district had been considering eliminating 88 full-time classified staff positions as one option to help balance its budget.

The proposed higher tax rate would pay for school resource officers, art and music programs, nurses and some increased employee benefit costs.

A final decision on the 2020 budget and tax plan is expected in June.

As Richland develops its plans, Kennewick is holding off at least until the fall on what it will do regarding taxes, and at least one Pasco School Board member said changing that district’s levy rate at this point would be a break in public trust.

Under the plan being discussed in Richland, the district would increase its levy rate from $1.50 to $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value to help close the budget gap created when the state changed the way school districts get their funding.

That means the owner of a $200,000 home will pay an additional $200 a year in taxes to help fund school programs.

Funding methods causing problems

School districts throughout the state are struggling to make ends meet as state lawmakers for more than a decade have been dealing with school funding lawsuits.

And they have been coming up with legislation they hoped would provide adequate and equitable funding for districts throughout the state.

While the state has provided more funding to local districts, it also capped how much local levy money could be collected and put restrictions on how that local money could be spent.

In this year’s Washington legislative session, lawmakers approved a bill to allow local school districts to increase how much they can ask taxpayers to pay in levy measures, allowing the rate to rise to $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value.

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Crossing guard Sarah Griffiths holds her warning flag for students and parents at Jefferson Elementary School to safely cross George Washington Way in Richland. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Richland considers increase

Now, Richland is considering taking advantage of that change, even though the 2018 ballot measure said that people would be taxed at a rate of $1.50 per $1,000.

Voters approved that levy, which was a four-year measure. But the same ballot measure also allowed the district to collect up to $24 million in 2020.

Richland was not alone in the state using this method to plan for the future, district officials said.

It was the second part of the ballot measure that mattered, according to the state Department of Revenue.

So Richland will be able to hike the rate to $2.50 per $1,000 and still not be collecting the full $24 million allowed. The total rate will still be below what people were paying before this year.

School leaders say the new, higher tax rate will bring in an extra $4.3 million during the 2019-20 school year.

Richland School Board President Rick Jansons told the Herald that voters understood they may end up paying more if the state raised the levy cap. The community is more concerned about keeping services for children, he said.

“We’ve heard that loud and clear,” said Jansons. “We’re still millions of dollars below the $24 million.”

While the school district is able to keep its staff positions, they will make other cuts to balance to budget, including limiting travel and trimming administrator positions.

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Parents, paraeducators and teachers spoke during a recent several hour Richland School Board meeting at Marcus Whitman Elementary. More than 500 people attended the meeting. Cameron Probert Tri-City Herald

Holding off on tax increase

Meanwhile, Kennewick and Pasco school officials have said they want to take a different approach to their funding gaps. They have turned to a combination of spending cuts and using reserves to balance their budgets.

Pasco School Board directors Aaron Richardson and Steve Christensen said voters expected to pay $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value when they approved the four-year levy in 2018, and there is not currently a plan to ask for more than that amount.

“I’m glad that we were clear to our voters,” Richardson said at a recent board meeting. “That is how we gain trust of our voters, is to have clear levies and bonds, and not leaving them vague where we could suddenly — without an additional vote — suddenly collect more money.”

Kennewick Superintendent Dave Bond said during a previous school board meeting the district may revisit local levies in the fall.

But he also noted that voters might be upset if they increase taxes after using the promise of a decrease to help get voters to accept a $125 million bond that was approved in February.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.