Sequim School District offers alternatives to bonds

Two local school levies will be on local ballots in early February that Sequim School District officials hope will reflect support from the community after four previous bonds fell short since April 2014.

The Educational Programs &Operations (EP&O) Levy approved by voters in 2013 is on the ballot for renewal, as well as a new Capital Projects Levy that the Sequim School District will seek approval from voters on in a special election on Feb. 14.

The state provides funds for most basic educational needs, school officials say, but the EP&O levy funds salaries and benefits for the equivalent of 32.5 full-time teachers, 16 classified staffers and 17 custodial and maintenance workers in Sequim.

The EP&O levy also provides funds for technology and curriculum, the high school band, pupil transportation, para-educators for special education, support for the State Transitional Bilingual Program and summer school allocation needs.

Voters approved an EP&O levy in 2013 that collected $5.78 million each year from 2014-2017 to support educational services and programs for Sequim students.

Sequim School District Superintendent Gary Neal explained that the district chose to call for a “renewal” of the EP&O Levy instead of a replacement because the future tax rate is anticipated to be less than the previous tax rate because assessed valuations on property tax increased over the past few years.

Neal estimated the current tax rate for the EP&O Levy is at $1.60 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation and the renewal of the levy would result in a tax rate estimated at $1.52 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation.

“We are very acutely aware of how we tax our community,” Neal said.

The district has proposed four bonds for school construction that was not approved by voters in the past three years. A bond requires 60 percent of voter approval, while a levy requires 50 percent plus one vote for approval.

One of the differences between a bond and a levy is that a levy is how much money is collected from the taxes imposed on citizens, and according to Neal, if the EP&O Levy is renewed, in the first year it will generate an estimated $6.3 million.

Neal explained that there is an index built into the plan so that if costs and salaries increase over time, the district can accommodate those increases without having to take money from its general budget which the district only uses for emergency situations.

“We have put a lot of thought into both of these levies,” Neal said.

“People spoke and then we listened,” Neal said, explaining that this time around the district has asked the community what they wanted and spent time with experts in the field to come up with the best plan for the Sequim community.

Also on the ballot for voter approval is a new capital projects levy that would collect taxes from 2018-2020 at an estimated rate of 16 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation.

A capital projects levy would be a voter-approved measure that provides funding for repurposing school buildings and for critical safety and technology infrastructure repairs and replacements.

Neal said he wants to show voters that there is something else to do besides running bonds and that is where a capital project levy comes into play.

Currently, the state does not fund the cost of building new schools, renovating older schools or costly maintenance projects.

Neal explained that the state only provides funding for school districts based on the number of students the district has and the amount of square footage needed for those students.

If passed, the capital projects levy would fund demolition of the unused portion of the Sequim Community School built in 1949 and allow the district to apply for $4.3 million in state matching funds for new school construction.

As long as the 1949 portion of the Community School still stands, the state counts it as usable square footage, said Neal, although the district was forced to move programs out of this part of the building in 2012 because it was found to be unsafe for students.

But in order for the district to claim the $4.3 million in state matching funds, a bond must be on the plate, said Neal.

He explained that once they have access to the $4.3 million, they can throw that directly into a bond and decrease that amount by $4.3 million.

“It’s a good project for us because we have to follow public rules and regulations that the private industry doesn’t have to,” Neal said.

The capital projects levy also would help the district upgrade the central kitchen facility by modernizing HVAC, electrical and fire protection systems, installing a double door and acquiring and installing freezer space.

The central kitchen still uses appliances from the World War II-era and only has enough freezer space for two days worth of food for the entire district, school officials say.

Combined, these levies would tax citizens a total of $1.68 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation for the first year and after the third year would only tax citizens for the EP&O Levy rate.

Brian Kuh, president of Citizens for Sequim Schools, said both the renewal of the EP&O and the Capital Projects levies has been received well by community members so far.

Kuh believes if voters pass both of these proposals, it could be a way to bring the community together.

“Picking up the ballot is important to unite us as a community,” Kuh said.

“It’s going to communicate a general acceptance,” he added, explaining that if voters were to pass these levies, it would show the district that the community has its back and will support the importance of quality schools.

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