How public schools are funded by taxpayers

Election day, when voters who live in the Tahoma School District will vote to approve or deny the district’s $195 million dollar construction bond measure, is less than a month away.

Here at the Reporter office we’ve been hearing questions about how school districts are funded — where the money comes from, where it goes, why hasn’t the influx of new families over the years equaled an increase in funding that would enable building new spaces, etc. So we decided to ask some questions and see what we could find.


Schools are funded by the state in two primary ways: through property taxes and through the state apportionment fund, which also comes from the property taxes.

A certain percentage of property taxes that are paid by a resident goes directly to the district in which they live. Then another percentage goes into the state apportionment fund, which is then doled out to districts according to their size.

That’s the short version.

How much districts get from the apportionment fund is based on what is commonly referred to as FTE, or full time equivalent. Think of it as how many students the district serves. But, it isn’t always a round number. For example, a student who goes to Tahoma High full time, six periods a day would get counted as one FTE. A student who spends half the day at Green River Community College would be allotted as .5 FTE.

Then a formula created by the state determines how many teachers a school should have based on the FTE for that school. Another formula that takes into consideration the base pay of teachers as well as other levels of pay based on teacher experience and education level — bachelors, masters, etc.— and the number of teachers the school should have based on the FTE then determines how much funding the school gets from the apportionment fund.

In Tahoma those two sources, the money received directly from property taxes and money received from the apportionment fund, makes up about 80 percent of the district’s operating budget according to Kevin Patterson, spokesman for the district.

“It’s severely underfunded,” said Lori Cloud, director of financial services for the Tahoma School District.

The district’s estimated revenue it will receive from the state for the 2013-2014 school year is $6,478 per student, Cloud said.


Where, then, does the other approximate 20 percent of the district’s budget come from? Levies.

Levies, which were designed to fund extra programs or wants by a district have become a key part of districts meeting their budget needs. This year 21 percent of Tahoma’s total revenue comes from the district’s two levies.

A levy requires a 50 percent yes vote to pass and a district can only go out for a levy twice per calendar year.

Tahoma collects a maintenance and operations levy, often referred to as simply an operations levy, and a technology levy.

The operations levy, Patterson said, mostly pays for people and is also used for supplies, equipment and materials. The technology levy is used to maintain and improve technology resources in the district.

Levies are voter approved measures which can be collected for up to six years and per the state they can be used to fund maintenance and operations, technology, transportation, and capital improvements.

Patterson said that levies aren’t used for large scale building projects, like the proposed construction of a new Tahoma High School, because of the six year limitation.

“It’s just too high of a rate to try to collect back,” Patterson said.


More students equals more FTE, which in turn affects how much money the district receives from the state. Also, with more students, costs grow—and that uses the additional funding the district receives. As can be seen from the 80-20 breakdown, how much the district receives doesn’t fund the entire district as is, which means there isn’t funding left over for large scale building projects.

Cloud said that when a new home is built, an impact fee between $6,000 and $7,000 is collected.

“That takes a lot to do anything with,” Cloud said.

She also added that in the past money from impact fees was used to buy portables.

How many houses are built in the district has no bearing on how much is collected in levy dollars.

When, for example, a fire district runs a levy the amount to be collected is tied directly to assessed valuation as a dollar figure per $1,000 of assessed valuation. That means that if assessed valuations go up, the fire district collects more. If assessed valuation goes down, the fire district collects less.

When a school district goes out for a levy, however, it asks for a set dollar amount. More houses, and therefore more families, mean that that total is spread out among more families not that the district collects any more money.


Every year the district is audited by the state auditor’s office, which sends a staff member to spend two months at the district office, going over the books and making sure funding is spent the way it should be.

Patterson noted that the district tries to operate as efficiently as it can and keeps only 3 percent to 4 percent in reserves on average.

“We’re trying to build our reserves a little higher, but we always run very lean,” Patterson said. “We put everything we can into the classroom and keep a smaller reserve.”

Cloud said the recommended amount of reserves is 5 percent of the budget.

“Where’s all that money you collected?” Patterson said people ask. “It’s where it’s supposed to be, being spent on kids and running buildings every day.”


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