Guest Column: School levy is the only sure thing unless …

Don’t move your eyes from this spot if you are as confused as I was about school funding. As much as you might like to, you can’t run away from the Sequim School District levies. Your ballot will be in the mail Jan. 25.

Feeling pestered? Asking a lot of questions like why can’t schools take no for an answer? The community doesn’t want another elementary school off campus! Besides, isn’t the state supposed to step up and pay for public education? The state’s constitution says it must fund basic education. Then there are all the trees in Clallam County. I heard that revenue from selling trees from certain trust lands are dedicated to funding education. If you, as I was, are asking any one of these questions, read on.

What’s at stake

I can’t count how many times I’ve called a levy a bond and a bond a levy. Fact is that school levies are very different from the school bonds that failed four times at the ballot box. We were voting on bonds to fund the long-term construction of facilities like a new elementary school. Levies are provided for under state law that allows local communities to enhance and support school services above and beyond state funding.

As such, they are referred to as educational programs and operations levies (EP&O). Our current levy is in the final year of its four-year term. The school district is proposing a replacement levy taxed at a rate lower than the current because there is an anticipated increase in assessed property tax values.

If the proposed four-year levy is not passed, there will be no funding for the school programs and services currently funded under the levy. District Superintendent Gary Neal tells us that 43 teacher and teacher-support positions, representing about 19 percent of all like positions, will be eliminated if the levy fails. Heidi Hietpas, CPA and newly appointed executive director of Finance and Operations for the district, says that 18.47 percent of this school year’s funding comes from the current EP&O levy. The percent varies from year to year depending on other funding sources such as state and federal funding.

School board member Jim Stoffer notes the proposed levy is a renewal of the current levy and is well below the levy lid established by the Legislature.

Levy funds are allocated to support shortfalls in areas such as teacher compensation, special education, facilities and maintenance, pupil transportation and technology. Additional levy funds support extracurricular activities not included in state basic education; among these are choir, band, football, soccer, cheerleading, operetta club, robotics club and engineering tech. Hietpas expects the 2018-2019 levy funds to be allocated in about the same proportion as the current year.

Most people agree that levy failure will blow a big hole in the school’s budget and one that can’t be filled. To believe otherwise is to practice wishful thinking such as believing the Dems and Reps in the state Legislature will come to spontaneous agreement or cutting trees from our forest will make up the shortfall or charter schools will replace our schools by school year 2017-2018.

What’s basic?

I was impressed with the high percentage of our local levy dollars going to what is termed basic education. Isn’t that what the state is supposed to be providing? Yup, hence the Legislature is being fined $100,000 a day for not providing for basic education.

The governor has made education funding a top priority. Democrats and Republicans formed a bipartisan education caucus that’s been working for seven months to report education funding recommendations to the Legislature at the beginning of 2017.

So far, each party has produced a separate report. I don’t think that’s a good sign but I may be wrong.

My read is that there is a ways to go to consensus. For example, read the recommendations for restrictions around local levies. Democrats called for a levy lid of 24 percent of the school’s budget. Republicans did not call for a lid; instead, called for levies to be restricted to non-basic education expenditures which would be strictly monitored for compliance.

Seems like two different directions to me; not to mention the challenge of defining basic education in this technological age. The most debated if not contentious area is where to find the money for additional state school funding. Each caucus report concludes with recommendations regarding paying for basic education whatever it is. Democrats focus on increasing revenue and Republicans focus on using existing revenue.

This isn’t easy. If it were, we would be looking at a different levy than we are today and the Legislature would be off the hook for the fine. The point is that even if resolution is achieved, local EP&O levies still will be required. It’s also likely that it will take years for the state to achieve full funding.

Doesn’t sound like a resolution to me.

Timber!

Late summer and early fall, we began hearing about another source of revenue for schools — timber. I didn’t know that certain timber lands were held in trust to provide construction and operations funding for schools from the sale of lumber. The term “arrearage” is now part of my vocabulary; the term refers to arrears as in debt.

School board member Mike Howe tells me that he understands that there is a backlog of timber that could and should have been harvested.

A white paper, developed for presentation to the Port Angeles Business Association, lays out the case for increasing timber production, therefore sales, to provide what would be substantial funding to schools. Howe says that Sequim does not have as much forest trust land as other parts of our county and would receive less funding for its schools.

There is more to learn about timber as a source of school funding but it doesn’t sound like Sequim Schools will receive a timber windfall from cutting down more trees.

Regardless, I am sure none will come in time to make up for a levy loss.

I want all options to be explored to ensure the future sustainability of a public school system that responds to contemporary needs for learning. In the meantime, I will and encourage you to vote for the current Sequim School levy request to replace the one that will expire at the end of 2017.

Resolutions can’t come soon enough.

Coming next: The Capital Projects Levy and the Future for Sequim Schools

Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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