Q & A Bentley answers queries about Sequim school levy

With Sequim schools' four-year maintenance and operations levy set to expire in 2010, school board directors are considering how to shape their next campaign, likely to come before voters in February or April.

We asked superintendent Bill Bentley about the proposed levy campaign and the financial challenges Sequim schools face.

Sequim Gazette (SG): How much of the Sequim school district budget comes from levy dollars?

Bill Bentley (BB): About 12 to 13 percent (of $24.5-25 million), or about $3.2 million.

SG: What do levy dollars pay for in Sequim schools?

BB: Out of the $3.2 million, here's where we are spending levy funds:

• Certified staff and administration salary and benefits (19 employees): $1,930,000

_ Transportation upgrades/repairs: $ 120,000

_ Curriculum upgrades: $160,000

_ Technology upgrades/repairs: $160,000

_ Facility upgrades/repairs: $ 180,000

_ Extracurricular activities: $340,000

_ Nonacademic staff salary and benefits: $130,000

_ Student materials, supplies: $220,000

___Total: $3,240,000

When the district proposed the last levy, these numbers looked a little bit different. We've reduced many of these areas ... because of the funding shortfall at the state level. We cut back on everybody's hours in the district.

What's happened is all these things we would like to be able to do we have to stop doing because we've shifted into trying to maintain our (minimum) staffing levels.

SG: Why doesn't the state fully fund public education?

BB: Every state does have different funding mechanism to some degree. In the state of Washington, the choice is that a portion of all funding for schools will come from the local community. And even though the state constitution says it's a paramount duty of the state to provide for education system, the state still leaves a significant portion of that funding responsibility on the local community.

It does put all school districts in a difficult place in that regard because every few years, we're right back in that same issue, saying the levy that we have is an integral part of what we have for funding in our district. Without it, we would drastically reduce services for kids. Couple that with what's happening (financially) ... it places even more reliance on those local funds.

The state reduced our funding quite significantly - over a million dollars in I-728 last year alone. It looks like we could have additional reductions next year.

SG: What would this district look like without levy dollars?

BB: At some point, if we continue to make reductions, now we're cutting into our revenue stream. We're not talking about maintaining these programs; we're talking about eliminating them. We can eliminate all the transportation, we can eliminate all the athletic programs, we can eliminate all supplies (but) we'd still have a problem trying to figure out how to get to that number.

It's a pretty vicious cycle. This is critical funding. There's no other way to say this.

SG: For residents in this community who don't have children in Sequim schools, what do they get for their levy dollars?

BB: I've heard some folks say recently in our community right now with the financial conditions we're in, everybody's talking about investments, what's a good investment, what's a bad investment. I heard someone who's very astute at making investments make this comment, that education is the best investment I could possibly make at this time.

What better investment can any of us make than to invest in the future? This is an investment for our kids, in our kids. The doctors that I go to now are younger than I. I certainly am pleased that somebody was willing to pay their taxes to make sure they were educated.

We have people that ... are doctors that are contemplating moving here that want to know about the school system before they make that decision. So the quality of life that we are going to gain as a result of the investment in our own future health may very well be dependent upon what some people's view of what the school system is like. The No. 1 question that people ask before they move to a community generally is, tell me about the schools.

Schools are an integral part of the community. If I'm concerned about my economic future (and) concerned about the economic future of this community, one of the things I want to be aware of is that a strong and stable, well-supported school system is absolutely crucial to the part of the economic base here for employment.

We have about 300 employees. We're talking about 180 certified positions. Investments in our future, investments in our children's future, investments in retaining and maintaining of a solid viable system for our economy ... is absolutely essential.

There's a moral imperative here, too. I don't have kids in the system right now, but I have children and I have grandchildren. I don't live in their community. I want those people over there to support that school system and support it strongly.

SG: What are some of the other financial challenges is the school district dealing with right now?

BB: The federal stimulus dollars that we've received will run out, not next year but the following year (federal stimulus dollars account for more than $830,000 worth of programs). The state's budget projections are not getting better; they're getting worse. We are projecting at the minimum that two years from now that we will most likely be down another million dollars. That follows (more than) a million dollars in reductions ... in a budget that is one of the lowest in the state per student.

The other thing that we're facing is continuing enrollment decline. That can be a huge issue as we move forward over the next five years. On the upper end, our biggest class approached 250 students. Our kindergarten enrollment this year is 155 (students). We're not guessing about what's going to happen here; it's going to happen.

Utility increases (are a factor, too). No matter what we do, if we even had the same amount of revenue, we have less money to provide for our kids just because of automatic increases with things like utilities, insurance and ... the solvency of the public employee's pension fund. Right now, the state is indicating that the employer rates that we're going to have to pay are going to be increased. It could be in the hundred of thousands of dollars.

SG: Has the board made any decision about what date they plan to run the levy?

BB: Not yet. The board has had numerous conversations in preparation for making that decision. The board began conversations this summer and we've done a number of workshops. We also have a district finance committee that we put in place last year, so we've had another group of people talking about the upcoming replacement levy for quite some time.

There are three basic questions that a board needs to answer (regarding a levy drive): One is, what shall the amount of the request be? Two, what should we designate the dollars to be spent on? Three, what should the duration of the levy be - a two-year, three-year or four-year collection period?

Our board wants to receive some community input so (we) scheduled a community meeting on Oct. 21 to provide additional opportunities for the community to be engaged in a process where ... everyone got a chance to kind of be in the role of a board member and think about some of these major questions. We also put a community survey on the Web site. We're encouraging people to look at that and provide some additional input.

(The board) will wait until after they've received some additional input from those community meetings ... to make those decisions. Right now, they've targeted to make that decision in the first part of November. The date the district has used in the past is in February. (It's) the one that makes the most sense. Timing-wise, that's the one the board has talked the most about ... because of our budgeting cycle.

Districts are so reliant on that funding piece from the local community. Any district that is not able to pass that levy is really going to be in dire straits, particularly now.

SG: Are you prepared to make a recommendation to the board about the levy?

BB: The board will have some time to gather all this information together and make a decision about each one of those issues, about the amount, the duration and what it is that they're going to pay for.

The board will ultimately make a decision. I will make a recommendation to the school board ... but in terms of our process behind that, there's been a tremendous amount of work. If a recommendation comes from me ... it will be supported by lot of other folks' thinking. It would include all the input we receive.

SG: What are the biggest challenges for getting voters to approve this next levy?

BB: For any organization that needs to ask people for their support or approval, the challenges are always there, they're always the same. I think our biggest challenge is communicating what our needs are and what our current situation is. I tend to believe that most of us, if we have the similar facts or similar information, then most of us tend to make decisions that are very much alike. People don't receive information in the same ways.

The other thing is, it's real clear that in this particular go-around, with the economy positioned the way that it is, these are not the easiest times. Everybody's family is impacted by this. From the school district perspective, I'm concerned about our starting point, our reductions that we've already had to make. This is a critical time for us in making this investment.

I tend to believe that, regardless of the demographics in this community, that most people really do understand the importance and value of education. I think people generally want to support kids.

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