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Schools in the balance
by ROSS COYLE
Today, Jan. 23, Sequim citizens will be presented with the option to extend the Sequim School District’s existing property tax levy for the next four years and a levy to begin replacing an aging bus fleet.
The existing levy, set to expire at the end of this year, provides funding for the school district to pay for teachers and classified staffers, upgrade technology, maintain facilities and buy books.
The proposed educational programs & operations levy would collect the same amount Sequim collects in 2012 — about $5.8 million — for each of the next four years.
School district officials have indicated that not passing the levy would have a severe impact on employed teachers, programs provided and available resources.
The proposed levy would maintain tax rates at $1.61 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation and would decline during the next four years to $1.60 in 2017.
Transportation levy a one-time expense
The school district also is requesting a one-year Transportation Vehicle Fund Levy to support the purchase of new school buses. Such funding for the bus fleet, the district suggests, will be self-sustaining and cheaper in the long run.
The levy is at a rate of 44 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to raise $1.6 million for new buses.
Brian Lewis, Sequim School District business manager, said the $1.6 million allows the bus program to become self-sustaining over the next 13 years. The initial revenues in 2014 will go to purchase a fleet of 10 new buses which will be reimbursed by state funds.
Under state policy, the state provides funding to maintain and replace aging district transportation vehicles. For each new bus purchased, school districts are reimbursed for 12 years; in the 13th year, they use those saved funds to purchase new busses.
If the levy fails
Sequim schools superintendent Kelly Shea said if the levy doesn’t pass, he would need to work with the school board to decide which programs, services and positions would be cut. He also noted that the total tax bill will decrease if the levy is passed, since funds from the levy will be used to pay off the school district’s existing debts. Bond issues that taxpayers passed for construction of Sequim Middle School and other capital projects in 1998 come off the tax books in 2014, so property owners in the Sequim School District will actually see their taxes toward Sequim schools go down even with levy approvals. If both levies are approved, levy supporters note, owners of $200,000 of assessed property value will see local school property tax drop from $453.80 to $435.80, an $18 decrease.
“Public education evens out the field from the beginning,” said Mike McAleer, president of Citizens for Sequim Schools, the grassroots group charged with promoting passage of the Sequim school levies.
McAleer said that school funding reflects a community’s priorities and the quality of schools are a consideration when many high-income professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, move to an area.
Sequim parents also have acted to raise awareness about the need for the levy.
Sequim Police Department Officer JoElle Munger, who has two children in the school district, said that she understood how tax levies worked, but wasn’t aware of how much of a return taxpayers get for very little investment.
Munger said that while she doesn’t need to go far to get her children to school, it’s still important for a rural area to have good transit to schools.
“It’s about all the kids who need good safe transit and the fact that this is sustainable for the next 20 years,” Munger said.
Alan Richardson, who owns Dungeness Seaworks, said that the school system is worth supporting.
“Even before we had children we voted for schools,” he said. “The one reason we moved here was for the school system.”
Not all of Sequim has been behind the levy. Some say that the public school system itself is too dysfunctional to fix with a levy. Others like Sequim retiree Kenny Burch don’t have any stake in the school system and feel overtaxed as it is.
Burch said that his vote is more symbolic and he supports the levy despite his vote.
“I would vote no, because I personally think we’re overtaxed,” he said, “but at the same time I hope it passes.”
Speaking from experience
Sequim High School teacher Mike Lippert moved to the area in 2001 and saw firsthand the ramifications of a failed levy. Sequim schools suffered two levy proposal failures in the same calendar year and lost levy funding for all of 2002.
“You start to watch the very material things of education crumble before you,” Lippert explained.
He said that often the only way to preserve funding for after-school programs is to implement a pay-to-play system, and he said that fine arts programs would bear the brunt of cuts because of their higher costs than a football or volleyball program.
“Things like your chorus program start to suffer, things like your band program start to suffer,” he said, “and for a lot of kids who don’t play basketball, who don’t play football, they find their very refuge in the fine arts programs.”
The loss of funding also had a pronounced effect on class sizes, Lippert said, because teaching jobs are often the first jobs targeted to trim staffing budgets.
“Did our classes get to 44 (students)? Probably not,” he says. “But did they get to a point where they became way more problematic for the individual education of students? I would say without a doubt.”
The voters will make their decision by Feb. 12, the last day to deliver their ballots to the Clallam County Auditor’s Office at 223 E. Fourth St., Port Angeles, or drop them in the drop box outside Sequim City Hall, 152 W. Cedar St.
Reach Ross Coyle at email@example.com.