The Spokane SD81 Levy

Dear Group,

The basic math is pretty simple. One cannot increase funding for public schools and cut taxes at the same time. That’s what State Senate Republicans sold the legislature in 2017. That is the reality most Washington State school districts are now facing. Shame on us for believing their preposterous math.

The 2012 McCleary Washington State Supreme Court Decision told the State Legislature to live up to the State Constitution’s promise to provide “ample” funding for basic education. The Court agreed with the plaintiffs: it is the responsibility of the State, not local governments, to provide this funding for basic education and the State was falling short. The Court made no pronouncement prohibiting local governments from supplementing the districts for personnel and assistance beyond basic education. 

Broadly speaking, there were two solutions: 1) Find additional revenue for the State and apply that revenue to the disadvantaged districts or 2) Stick with sales and property taxes as the main sources of revenue and cobble together a system to redistribute existing property tax revenues between districts.    

The Republican reflex? Mount a campaign to unseat State Supreme Court judges who disagreed with McCleary. That failed. Since there is no recognition among Republicans that the Washington State tax system is the most regressive in the nation, revamping the tax system with a capital gains tax or a modest progressive income tax was simply not on the table (since they controlled the State Senate). Similarly, no Republican was going to stand for increasing the property tax, the sales tax, or the B&O tax to pay for increased funding for the common good of public schools. So they chose option #2, backed a “levy swap equalization” as a solution, and stonewalled it through an exhausted legislature in 2017. Behind the “levy swap equalization” is a simple truth: It offers little or no new money to education. It just subtracts money School District voters had already approved (to supplement inadequate State funding) and puts that subtracted money into State coffers to fund basic education. Once this money was removed from the districts it was touted as “new” State funding for basic education. 

Michael Baumgartner, a belligerent Republican, was then State Senator from LD6, the district that wraps part way around Spokane from the southwest. He is now Spokane County Treasurer. As State Senator, Mr. Baumgartner was very proud of his and his party’s tax stonewalling. He was equally proud to have engineered the “levy swap equalization,” now a major cause of suffering in school districts all over the state. The quote that follows is taken from a fundraising email from Michael Baumgartner I received on July 21, 2017:

We just finished the longest legislative session in state history. What took so long? Jay Inslee and his radical allies demanded that Majority Senate Republicans accept his absurd proposals for a state capital gains income tax and a carbon tax.  We told Inslee to ‘pound sand’, held firm and fought back. Despite all these months – and Inslee even talking about “water boarding” Senate Republicans while crying to the press – we didn’t budge.  Instead, we triangulated a strategy to fund the state’s K-12 McCleary case through a “levy swap equalization” that will reduce overall property taxes on nearly 75% of households (largely in areas represented by Republicans) and increase property taxes largely in the Seattle area (represented by Democrats).

This snarky quote on its own ought to disqualify Mr. Baumgartner from holding public office.  His “levy swap equalization” has nothing to do with improving public school funding. It is only a means to stick it to communities represented by Democrats. 

Are Baumgartner and his Republican colleagues now owning the widespread dismay in most public school districts? Hardly. They’re busy blaming the McCleary Decision, the teachers’ union and teacher pay raises, pretending that the state provided lots more money and the districts are wasting it.

Let’s look at that. The trick in Baumgartner’s “levy swap equalization” was having the State impose a limit on the amount a local school district is allowed to raise within its district from property tax levies, levies the district had used to supplement “basic education.” The “levy swap equalization” the Republicans held out for simply switches property tax money from the School District pocket to the State pocket. Does this help schools in underfunded districts? Hell, no. All Baumgartner’s lauded levy swap does is hobble the ability of local communities to run their own affairs. This levy cap only makes sense if your whole purpose in dealing with McCleary is to limit taxes, not to improve public school funding. 

Let’s look at District 81 as an example. Prior to 2017, according to Brian Coddington at District 81, the school district was receiving around $4.00 per 1000 assessed value of the local property tax for “maintenance and operations,” a levy level approved by voters. (See Note at the bottom.) Spokane voters appreciate education. Much of that operating money was used to support programs outside “basic education,” including librarians, nurses, counselors, mental health professionals and others who have been working with and supporting teachers in our public schools for years. 

Enter Mr. Baumgartner with his “levy swap equalization.” That’s the $1.50 limit on local school levies you read about in the Spokesman. In 2019 District 81 lost more than half of its local funding, from $3.79/1000 to $1.50/1000, money that cannot be replaced by the money offered by the State. That’s because the State money  by law can only be used for “basic education.” That’s a key concept that most of us don’t understand and the media are doing a poor job of explaining. Why did the District use the State McCleary money for raises and now it’s cutting libraries and counselors? In large part it is on account of restrictions on the use of the State money, apparently a nuance lost on the like of our County Treasurer Mr. Baumgartner. Do his four children even attend public school? Does he have a dog in this fight apart from his antipathy to a fair state tax system?

Keep to the high ground,


Note 1: It takes some digging to ascertain how that $1.50/1000 limit ties to one’s own property tax bill. Here’s the answer: On my 2019 tax bill “SCHOOL DIST 081” gets 35% of the $11.93/1000 total property tax levy. That’s $4.18, not $1.50. What’s up with that? It turns out that $4.18 is the combination of $1.50 SD081 Spokane General levy and the $2.68 SD081 Spokane B&I levy. (B&I is bonds and capital investment in schools, money approved by the voters, separate from the operating budget, and not part of the current controversy.) The B&I went up to $2.68 in 2019 from $1.87 in 2018 because we passed another bond. At the same time the General levy went down from $3.79 in 2018 to $1.50 in 2019 on account of Baumgartner’s “levy swap.” I had to speak with a nice man in the Spokane County Treasurer’s office (not Baumgartner) to learn that I could see this tax breakdown online. Just go to , enter your parcel number from your tax bill and scroll down on the result to the “Levy” section.

Note 2: So if the local SCHOOL DIST 081 funding dropped $2.29/1000 in the levy “swap,” what increased to make it a swap? I looked back at my property tax bills for 2015-19. Over that period the total levy per thousand assessed value dropped from $14.24 to $11.93/1000. Of that total the portion of those dollars going to the State (mostly for school funding) increased only from $2.26 to $2.52/1000, that is, only $0.26 dollars. The dollar/1000 numbers for the State portion of the levy are uniform state-wide by law, while each School District faces its own abrupt drop in local supplementary funding.

Note 3: In doing this research I did an internet search on “levy swap equalization of washington state.” The result was instructive…and worrisome. A majority of the hits offering analysis and explanation came from the Washington Policy Center, the Washington State mouthpiece for the Libertarian, staunchly anti-tax, Koch-funded web of “think tanks.” Under the guise of authoritative non-partisan research WPC pumps the internet with Libertarian bias. WPC “research” then finds its way into local newspapers when hurried reporters look for background and perspective.