Replacement levies pose dilemma for districts

Officials mull whether to ask voters to make up potential losses

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

 

As state lawmakers prepare to discuss a proposal to slash school equalization money, four Clark County school districts due for local replacement levy elections next year must decide whether to ask voters to make up any potential losses.

Tax Rates

The operation and maintenance tax rates in Clark County school districts for 2011.

School district: Rate (per $1,000 of assessed property value)

Evergreen: $3.69

Hockinson: $3.65

Green Mountain: $3.40

Woodland: $2.17

Source: Clark County treasurer

To further complicate the matter, school boards will likely have to decide what amount to ask from voters before they know the fate of equalization.

“We are making a decision in a vacuum at this point,” said Troy Thomas, Evergreen School Board president.

School equalization is a mechanism through which the state gives districts money to make up for low property values and thereby, in theory, provide financial equality for all districts in the state. The provision is not part of the Constitution and is at the discretion of the Legislature.

Gov. Chris Gregoire last month proposed reducing equalization funding by 50 percent, or $150 million, in 2013-14 to help address the state’s $2 billion shortfall. In an apparent attempt to equalize the impact of the cuts, her proposal entails a four-tiered system in which districts would be subject to payment reductions of 10 percent to 100 percent, depending on their assessed property value. Eight Clark County school districts would be affected by the proposal.

Clark County’s Evergreen, Hockinson, Green Mountain and Woodland school districts are in the awkward situation of having to ask voters to renew their local levy without knowing whether equalization funds will be available. They all plan to hold elections Feb. 14, but those elections must be called by the end of December.

School boards will face the question of whether to ask voters for additional money to make up for any cuts in equalization. That’s a tough a call to make when school officials, on one hand, are faced with having to further chip away at educational programs and staff, or on the other hand, appealing for more money from an electorate still plagued by unemployment, clo

sure and rising costs on everyday expenses.

Thomas said the Evergreen School Board is considering asking for a higher levy amount in order to prepare for the possibility of losing equalization. Under the governor’s plan, Evergreen would lose about half of its equalization money, or $6.8 million.

“We want to do what’s best for the district, but at the same time, not make a big impact on taxpayers,” Thomas said.

Evergreen’s local operations and maintenance levy for 2011 is $3.69 per $1,000 of value and is scheduled to increase to $4.07 in 2012. Thomas said the board is unlikely to ask for the maximum amount of $4.72 but could ask for a range between $4.21 and $4.55. That would cost an owner of a home with median assessed value of nearly $170,000 about $13.11 to $44.01 more per year, said Mike Merlino, Evergreen chief financial officer.

“We don’t want to sell ourselves short,” Thomas said. “If we go too low, it could be damaging to the classroom. If we go too high, we run the risk of losing the levy.”

The board will likely make a decision Dec. 13.

Officials with Hockinson, Green Mountain and Woodland, all significantly smaller districts, said they are reluctant to ask for more than their current levy because of the toll the economic downturn has had on their constituents.

“We are just trying to be cognizant of the economic challenges everyone is facing,” said Green Mountain Superintendent Joe Jones. “In the last four years, we’ve had great support from our taxpayers. We really feel we can make it through and be frugal as we can.”

The Green Mountain School Board is expected to make a decision at its Nov. 22 meeting.

Woodland would lose all of its equalization funds under the governor’s proposal.

“It’s not easy for us to simply pass that on to taxpayers,” said Woodland Superintendent Michael Green. Green said the Woodland School Board has discussed asking for only a modest levy increase to account for inflation.

Hockinson, which stands to lose half of its equalization funds, also doesn’t appear inclined toward a levy increase.

“Our community is suffering, as well,” said Hockinson Superintendent Sandra Yager. “We are going to do our best not to pass that burden.”

State lawmakers will take up the equalization matter during an upcoming special session on Nov. 28

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.