Districts protest planned cuts

Gregoire suggested easing the hit where landowners already pay higher tax rates

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Nearly 100 school officials representing all 30 Southwest Washington school districts asked local lawmakers Friday to spare school levy equalization funding as they set about the grim task of slashing $2 billion from the state budget.

Proposed cuts in equalization levies

Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed grouping the state’s school districts in four tiers based on their property tax rates for maintenance and operations levies. Districts whose landowners pay the highest rates would take the smallest cuts to their levy equalization support in 2013. Here is how Clark County districts would fare:

Tier 4 (100 percent cut)

Camas' $1,122,557 levy equalization would go to zero.

Green Mountain's $37,499 support would go to zero.

Vancouver's $8,437,198 support would go to zero.

Washougal's $747,691 support would go to zero.

Tier 3 (50 percent cut)

Battle Ground's $6,275,086 support would go to $3,137,543.

Evergreen's $13,624,200 support would go to $6,812,000.

Hockinson's $779,922 support would go to $389,961.

La Center's $581,314 support would go to $290,657.

NOTE: Ridgefield is not a levy equalization district.

SOURCE: ESD 112

The legislative forum, sponsored by Educational Service District 112 in Vancouver, drew nine lawmakers, including five from Clark County: state Sen. Craig Pridemore and state Reps. Jim Moeller, Tim Probst, Paul Harris and Ann Rivers.

Education consultant Marcia Fromhold set the tone for the session by warning that the impacts of the next round of budget cuts will be “gigantic — worse than any of us have ever seen.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire is scheduled to release a supplemental budget Nov. 21, after new caseload and revenue forecasts provide the most current information available about the depth of the state’s budget crisis.

In her list of preliminary options, released last week, the governor proposed cutting levy equalization by 50 percent, or $150 million, for the 2013-14 school year. The effects on individual school districts would vary widely, however, depending on each district’s tax base.

Vancouver, Camas, Washougal and Green Mountain schools would lose their entire equalization levies. Vancouver would lose $8.4 million, the largest cut to any school district in Washington.

Battle Ground, Evergreen, Hockinson and La Center schools would see their levies halved.

Ridgefield is the only county district that does not receive an equalization levy, but Ridgefield Superintendent Art Edgerly said it does not want to see other school districts penalized by loss of equalization dollars.

Fromhold said that under the governor’s proposal, an estimated 590 teaching positions would be eliminated in the 30 districts served by ESD 112.

Gregoire will visit Vancouver on Monday to address students directly about the potential impacts of cuts to K-12 and higher education and hear their concerns.

Levy equalization is designed to even out the tax impacts on property owners created by the differences in taxable wealth among school districts. Urban districts with large amounts of commercial and industrial property can fund programs with lower property tax rates. Districts that are mostly residential, and small rural districts, tax their property owners at a higher rate to support their schools.

Battle Ground School Superintendent Shonny Bria said her district couldn’t survive the loss of half its equalization levy, about $3.1 million.

“We have had two triple-levy failures,” she said. “We have survived on a shoestring. Right now, we barely have $1 million in our ending fund balance. If we lose equalization, we lose our $1 million and our district may be forced to throw in the towel. We will be bankrupt” and the district will be carved up, she said. “I don’t want to see that happen to a school district that has existed for 100 years.”

Superintendents from several small districts said equalization levies are critical to serving their students. Jerry Lewis, superintendent of the White Salmon Valley district in Klickitat County, said levy equalization through ESD 112 provides special education services to nearly one-fifth of his students. “That effort is valued and very important,” he said. “Its a way of leveraging dollars efficiently.”

John Deeder, Evergreen schools superintendent, asked lawmakers whether school districts ought to band together to support equalizing the impact of levy cuts across the state.

“We understand school levy equalization is going to take its cut,” but students shouldn’t suffer disproportionately, Deeder said. “We aren’t going to stand up and say, ‘We can’t cut education,’ because education is a big part of the budget.”

Urged to lobby

Probst and other lawmakers urged school superintendents and school directors to get directly involved in lobbying if they hope to save equalization from the budget knife as lawmakers managed to do in the 2011 session.

“Last year we had to fight this three times,” Probst said. But unlike basic school support, he noted, “levy equalization isn’t protected by the Constitution,” and it may not be able to survive unscathed in the current crisis.

He called equalization “a matter of equity for students and for taxpayers,” noting that taxpayers in the Evergreen district, where the average home value is $170,000, actually pay more to support their schools than those in an affluent Seattle community where the average home value is $450,000.

Moeller, D-Vancouver, agreed that school officials should fight for equalization but also urged them to be realistic and prepare for cuts. “It doesn’t make sense that we’re all going to walk away when we’re faced with a $2 billion hole in the budget,” he said.

Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, said school districts need to understand that the economy they will face coming out of the upcoming legislative session “will be different from the economy we’ve had in the past.” One reason the state faces a crisis now, he said, is because “for a long time Olympia believed this was a classical cyclical recession.”

He also warned, “If we arbitrarily reduce or eliminate levy equalization, there will be litigation, which isn’t good for anyone.”

On Oct. 1, all 30 superintendents signed a letter to Southwest Washington legislators telling them that their actions regarding cuts to education funding must be evaluated in the light of a 2010 King County Superior Court ruling that warned further cuts could cause the state to run afoul of the Washington Constitution, which declares funding of K-12 education to be the state’s paramount duty.

“Without funding, reform legislation for basic education may be an empty promise,” the court said.

The districts called on legislators to implement any necessary budget reductions for schools at the state level rather than the local level. For example, they suggested the state negotiate salaries and benefits for K-12 teachers. Their letter also called for reducing the number of instructional days in the school year, protecting levy equalization, and eliminating unfunded mandates.

Vancouver School Board director Edri Geiger lashed out at the State Board of Education and the Olympia education bureaucracy, saying they continue to operate in an outdated, top-down manner, imposing unfunded mandates on local schools instead of allowing them to innovate and try different approaches to teaching and learning that could also save money.

Moeller questioned the suggestion that the state take over collective bargaining with teachers.

“Why do we have local school boards if not to make those collective bargaining decisions?” he asked.

But Patty Wood, a school board member from Kelso, said the current system places districts in a no-win situation. “Giving me the choice to cut teacher budgets is not giving me flexibility,” she said. “We are bound by a contract. We are mandated to abide by a state teacher salary schedule. … If you want to give us flexibility, give us the right to get out of teacher contracts in the middle of the school year.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523; http://www.twitter.com/col_politics; kathie.durbin@columbian.com.