A MONSTER OF A BAND

Local educational programs and operations levies fund everything beyond basic education, including extracurricular activities such as band.

Three Skagit County school districts will ask voters in February to renew levies that will allow the districts to collect revenue through property taxes to support their schools.

The Concrete, La Conner and Mount Vernon school districts are each putting levy requests in front of voters for the Feb. 12 special election.

It is the first time each district will do so since earlier this year when the state changed the way school districts can collect local levy dollars.

“We are going to collect a lot less money than we did under the old levy system,” said Jennifer Larson, finance director for the Mount Vernon School District.

In an effort to comply with a state Supreme Court order mandating the state fully fund basic education, the Legislature changed the way schools are funded, having them rely more on state funding than local taxpayer dollars.

The state enacted a higher property tax and limited what districts can request from local taxpayers — lowering the rate to $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value or $2,500 per student, whichever is less.

In Skagit County, that means all but the Anacortes School District are limited to asking for no more than $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value.

Unlike previous years, that money, the state now says, can only be used for enrichment purposes — things such as art and music. That’s a departure from before when levy dollars were used for everything from textbooks to salaries.

“It’s really about things that supplement and enhance learning,” said La Conner School District Superintendent Whitney Meissner.

MOUNT VERNON

The school district is asking voters to approve two levies: a two-year replacement educational programs and operations levy, and a two-year replacement safety and technology levy.

Unlike previous years, districts this year have to estimate how much money that will bring in based on information from local assessors’ offices. That means the numbers won’t be finalized until property value assessments are finalized in early 2019.

“This is such a different experience,” Larson said. “We don’t really know the dollar amount.”

In 2017, voters in the district approved a two-year $30.5 million EPO levy — about $3.93 per $1,000 in assessed property value — and a two-year $3.7 million replacement safety and technology levy, which was about 49 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value.

If approved, the new EPO levy would bring in about two-thirds less for the district, Larson said.

Like many districts, if voters approve the replacement EPO levy, Mount Vernon will have to use some of those funds to make up for what the state does not fund or fully fund, including special education.

Combined with an increase in salaries at the start of the school year, less EPO levy funding leaves the district facing about $4.5 million in cuts for the 2019-20 school year.

Because of less EPO levy revenue — some of which has also traditionally been used to advance the district’s safety and technology initiatives — the district is increasing its ask for its replacement safety and technology levy to $4.7 million, or $1.01 per $1,000 in assessed property value, beginning in 2020.

“In order to keep the technology and security initiatives moving forward, we are increasing the technology and security levy to include some of the things that were previously being paid for by the EPO levy,” Larson said.

Even with the 52-cent increase per $1,000 in assessed property value on the safety and technology levy, and the 81-cent increase per $1,000 in state property taxes, if both levies are approved, property owners will be paying less than they were in previous years, Larson said.

“You still end up with a decrease of $1.10 per $1,000 in assessed property value,” she said.

LA CONNER

The school district is asking for a two-year replacement EPO levy that it estimates will bring at least $807,605 per year.

That money will be used to supplement funding for food services, safety and equipment enhancements, the highly capable program, and special education, Meissner said.

The levy will also be used to fund extracurricular activities that are not supported by the state, including sports and the district’s after-school Braves Club.

However, those costs are expected to be offset by an increase in contributions from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

The tribe has contributed about $400,000 per year to the district following the 2013 Great Wolf Lodge Decision in 2015, when 931 properties in the Shelter Bay and Pull And Be Damned Road areas were removed from the county’s property tax rolls, affecting multiple taxing districts, including the school district.

For 2019, Meissner said the tribe has committed to contributing an extra $100,000 to the school’s general fund and an extra $60,000 specifically for the Braves Club.

“Which will take a burden off the Braves Club because the Braves Club is funded through levy dollars,” she said. “It’s a very generous thing they’re doing and we’re grateful.”

Despite the additional money from the tribe, the district will face a budget deficit even if voters approve the $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value levy.

In 2017, voters in the district approved a two-year $1.25 million replacement EPO levy, which is the equivalent of about $2.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value.

The district will rely on its reserves to keep it in the black, Meissner said. Right now, the district is not looking at cuts.

“I actually think we are in a really healthy position even projecting a deficit,” she said. “Just because we are projecting one doesn’t mean it will come to fruition.”

CONCRETE

The school district is asking for a two-year replacement EPO levy that it estimates would bring in a maximum of about $900,000 per year.

Business Manager Danna Rogers said the district generally asks for a three-year levy.

In 2016, voters in the school district approved the district’s request for a three-year $5.5 million replacement EPO levy, or about $3.16 per $1,000 in assessed property value in 2017 and $2.98 in 2018.

“That’s a significant decrease in allowed collectable levy revenue,” Rogers said of the current levy proposal.

That means even if voters do approve the levy, the district will have to start taking a hard look at some of its offerings for when its reserves run down, Rogers said.

“We will have to look at what we’re spending our money on and what programs we might have to cut back or get rid of,” Rogers said.

Because the state is not paying for full special education needs, some districts — particularly small, rural ones such as Concrete — will have to rely on levy dollars to fill those gaps.

It will also have to find money to pay for things such as new paving outside the high school and administrative offices.

“It is not what was expected when they were talking about creating equality for all students,” Rogers said. “This did not end up being equal for all. I think it’s really unfair for students in small districts.”

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141, kwanielista@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kera_SVH, facebook.com/KeraReports

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