Schools seek to replace timber payments

3 Skamania County districts ask voters to approve levies

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 
photoPast federal timber payments and proposed school levies for three of the four Skamania County school districts. Click to enlarge.

The spigot that poured federal timber payments from Washington, D.C., into Skamania County government and its four school districts for the past two decades is poised to run dry.

Annual checks from D.C. — which since 2008 have declined from $218,235 to $131,059 for Mount Pleasant School, just east of Washougal — are likely to end, following one final payment this winter. And Congress is surely not in a giving mood.

In response, the tiny Mount Pleasant district will ask voters to adopt a maintenance-and-operations property tax levy. It’s the local funding tool used by the vast majority of Washington school systems, including all Clark County districts.

Getting approval from 230 or so registered voters could be tricky.

Only once, in 1995-96, did Mount Pleasant, home to 60 enrolled students, have voters’ OK to charge an M&O levy.

Three years ago, when federal money also appeared doomed, a similar request was defeated, 61 percent to 39 percent.

However, word had come before that vote that federal payments — in lieu of logging and other property tax revenue sharply hamstrung by Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and other environmental restrictions — would survive, at least a few more years. This time, there’s little reason for optimism.

And so, Mount Pleasant seeks a two-year levy that would raise $100,000 in both 2012 and 2013. It would supply nearly 20 percent of the district’s operating budget, replacing the portion now covered by timber payments.

With total estimated district property value of $43.5 million (projected to stay flat through 2013) the per-household levy rate would be $2.30 per $1,000 assessed value, each year. The tax would be $460 per year for a home worth $200,000, $690 for a home worth $300,000.

Mount Pleasant leaders warn of a much more costly alternative:

Should the district, created in 1892, dissolve, it stands to be absorbed into the neighboring Washougal School District — where property owners now pay nearly $4.30 per $1,000 assessed value, in combined M&O levy, construction debt and other school charges each year.

Self-interest tops reasons residents should keep the three-classroom building afloat, leaders say. Mount Pleasant has dropped its art-music teacher position and now has only five employees: Three classroom teachers; Linda Slattery, who doubles as school superintendent and secretary; and a combination bus driver-custodian-cafeteria-and-recess-supervisor.

That’s about as lean as a district can be, officials say.

“What we have heard from the community is that they don’t want Mount Pleasant School to go away or be absorbed,” De Nelson, school board president, wrote to The Columbian. “We are a Skamania County school and would like to stay that way. We want to keep our high standards of education for our students,” she wrote.

Board member Karl Kanthak calls the levy proposal “a simple no-brainer,” to save homeowners $2 per $1,000 in assessed value and preserve “a more local, more responsive, smaller taxing authority.”

Skamania, Mill A

It’s nearly the same story in rural Skamania and Mill A school districts, which lie between Mount Pleasant and the Klickitat County border. (Stevenson-Carson school leaders have chosen, due to the poor economy, to put off a levy request until 2012.)

Never before have the two districts asked voters for local property taxes. But, never have the futures of their one-schoolhouse operations been so much in doubt, leaders say.

Skamania School, home to 58 students in June, asks for $175,000 in both 2012 and 2013. The estimated levy rate would be $1.35 per $1,000 in 2012, followed by $1.32.

The 2012 tax would be $270 for a home worth $200,000 and $405 for a home worth $300,000.

At Mill A School, which also has about 60 students, a property tax levy would net $70,000 in 2012 (estimated per-$1,000 rate: $1.38) and $100,000 in 2013 (estimated rate: $1.99).

A home worth $200,000 would be taxed $276 and $398 in 2012 and 2013; for a $300,000 home, the tax would be $414 and $597.

That’s too much to ask of recession-ridden voters, said the leader of the only organized opposition group to emerge among the three small districts.

“We’re still on a path for failure,” said Angela Morrill of Cook. School leaders can’t promise the levy will keep Mill A afloat beyond 2013, and cling to the threat of closure over aggressive cost-saving, she said.

Morrill says the district has lived large on the federal timber money for years. “A levy doesn’t solve the problem. If anything, it will just help enable overspending and mismanagement,” she said; the district should trim staff and expenses to remain sustainable, just as most Washington schools have.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.