Stevenson-Carson levy would be first for district

Timber money, now gone, previously funded schools

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The last time property owners in the Stevenson-Carson School District paid property taxes directly to their schools was -- well, never.

The district now is asking voters to change that to make up for the loss of federal timber money.

The school district put its first-ever operations levy on the Feb. 14 ballot. The measure asks for just over $1.5 million per year for the next three years.

At current assessed values, the $1.5 million asked for by the district would result in a tax of $2.07 per $1,000 of property value, said Superintendent Teena McDonald.

In Washington, districts only can ask for a total amount per year of levy proceeds, which doesn’t change once approved by voters, even if property values change. County officials set the property tax rate to yield the voter-approved total amount.

The median home value in the school district in 2011 was $166,000, said county assessor Gabe Spencer. The owner of a median-priced home would therefore pay an estimated additional $343 per year in property tax if the levy measure passes.

Most other districts around the state this year only have to convince voters to renew existing tax levies, with some increase thrown in for inflation.

That’s not the case in Stevenson-Carson, where property owners have never paid an operations levy to run schools or a bond levy to build them, McDonald said. Here all of the tax is new. That’s been a problem in neighboring districts’ levy campaigns -- the Skamania and Mill A school districts failed to pass operations levies last year.

Skamania County’s school districts used to pay for big chunks of their expenditures with money from federal timber sales. After the early 1990s, they used federal money provided to make up for the loss of timber revenue.

For school districts that got timber money elsewhere in Washington, those amounts were deducted from funds the state sent to the districts, meaning the overall revenue for most districts was the same, whether timber money went up or down.

But Skamania County got a special deal after Mount St. Helens blew its top. Only 30 percent of federal timber money was deducted from state school funds for its districts, according to a 2010 presentation by state school officials. Most of the timber money came on top of that.

The districts were flush with cash, building up reserves higher than their annual budgets in some cases. Usually, school districts are happy to maintain savings account balances of 5-10 percent of their annual budgets.

But federal money started dwindling five years ago. The payments were meant to bridge the transition between a heavy reliance on the timber industry and the development of new business sectors in those forest counties -- except there was a recession, and new industries were slow to settle.

And so, districts dipped deep into their saving accounts, even as they tightened their belts. The last scheduled payments of federal timber money arrived last month. And they were a lot smaller than they used to be.

Stevenson-Carson received $4 million in timber money in 2008, before the feds starting ramping down those payments. Last month’s payment was $1.5 million, McDonald said. The district expects zero timber dollars next January.

The district of about 1,100 students has an annual operating budget of $12 million. Losing such a big portion of its revenue has been painful and led to its putting the levy measure on the ballot.

The levy is meant to do what the timber money had done before -- fill the gap between what the state pays per student and what it actually costs to put a kid through school. Districts have long said that the gap amounts to several thousand dollars per student per year. Last month, the State Supreme Court agreed and told the Legislature to start fully paying for student’s K-12 education. But the court’s directive doesn’t fully kick in for several years.

There will be cuts in any case

In the meantime, there will be cuts -- even if the levy passes.

The Stevenson-Carson district has cut $800,000 from its budget in the last two years, McDonald said. It’s in the process of cutting another $1.5 million over the current school year and the next. It has cut coaches, travel expenses and library hours. It has reduced energy consumption and slimmed down sports programs. And it laid off two teachers and didn’t replace other employees who retired.

The Washington Association of School Administrators just completed a study of Stevenson-Carson’s finances and expenditures, McDonald said. It will soon send the district a list of recommended cuts that could include consolidating its current four schools into three.

The district will have about $5 million in reserves going into the next school year, said Tim Merlino, chief finance officer at the Educational Service District 112, which handles a lot of the financial matters for Stevenson-Carson.

Even after all the cuts, the district is set to spend $1.5 million more than it takes in next year after the loss of timber money, Merlino said.

If the levy doesn’t pass, the district likely will absorb some of that out of its reserves. But deep cuts would be forthcoming, McDonald said. Extracurricular activities including high school sports would be on the list of potential reductions, she said.

If the levy passes, things will stabilize at the current, tighter level in a couple of years, Merlino said. But the district still will have to chop about $500,000 off its budget next year, Merlino said.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools