La Center schools may bet on state money

If Olympia increases operations funding, district won't need to

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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The La Center School District is poised to take a gamble.

The school board is mulling a decision to ask voters to extend a $2.5 million annual maintenance and operations levy for three more years. Doing so would not increase taxes, instead holding them flat.

In addition to the maintenance and operations levy, the school board will consider a request to seek voter approval for a capital projects levy. The rate for that levy is proposed to be 29 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value, or $58 for a home assessed at $200,000.

That would be a six-year levy and is expected to collect about $200,000 a year. The money would be used to build new sports facilities at the high school.

If approved by the school board next week, both measures would likely appear on the February ballot.

District officials say they're confident the state will start releasing more funds for K-12 education in the next few years, making the semi-regular bump to property taxes unnecessary -- at least for the next three years.

Superintendent Mark Mansell said the school district feels confident in making that decision.

"We think we've asked for what we need," he said.

Eye on Legislature

In the wake of the state Supreme Court's January ruling in what's known as the McCleary decision -- which said the state had not fulfilled its Constitutional obligation to adequately pay for K-12 education -- Mansell said he expects more state money to be forthcoming in the future, taking at least some of the burden off of the district's taxpayers.

He admitted that that's still a big assumption. But for Mansell, one thing is clear: State officials have been "behind the curve because they're not paying for basic education."

Although some education funding is protected by the state Constitution, spending on K-12 education dropped from around 50 percent of the state budget a decade ago to just over 40 percent today.

Next week, the school board will keep that in mind. The board will decide whether to give a nod of approval to the three-year maintenance and operations levy at a 7 p.m. Tuesday meeting at the La Center High School Library.

Representing about 20 percent of the school district's total budget, the district expects the M&O levy to generate slightly more than $2.5 million a year.

In 2013, the last year of the expiring $2.5 million levy, it will cost property owners $3.76 per $1,000 of assessed value, which means a $752 property tax bill for a home assessed at $200,000.

For 2014, the tax rate would be expected to remain at $3.76 per $1,000 of assessed home value.

The district is forecasting a 1 percent increase to assessed home values in 2015, inching up to 2 percent by 2016. Based on those forecasts, the district's fiscal officer Brett Blechschmidt said, the school district would drop its rates to $3.72 in 2015 and $3.65 in 2016.

There's no guarantee on those forecasts, however.

"As recent history has taught us, that's a total crapshoot," Blechschmidt said.

Over the past five years, the assessed value of homes has, on average, whipsawed between a 3.5 and 17.5 percent decrease annually, Blechschmidt said.

He said those figures are expected to even out in the coming years.

Whether the cards favor the district remains to be seen. But for Superintendent Mansell, the district's proposal is "a gamble worth taking."


Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.