Much to mull with South Kitsap School District levy

For the first time since the state constitution was amended to allow approval by a simple majority of voters, the South Kitsap School District is preparing to place a maintenance and operations levy proposition on the ballot.

Between now and February 2009 (when the measure is expected to appear on the ballot), voters need to learn the justification for whatever levy amounts the district’s directors decide to propose.

Before the board chooses levy dollar amounts to place on the ballot, any voters who want to influence the board’s choice have to speak up. Once the choice is made, the voters’ only role is to approve or reject the proposed amounts.

If the board makes a choice long before the election, as they seem inclined to do, there will be plenty of time to find out what they proposed — but little opportunity to suggest any changes.

On the other hand, if the board waits until a date closer to the election to make its choice, there would be an opportunity for a genuine public discussion about the levy dollar amounts that ought to be put on the ballot.

Is there any reason not to allow ample opportunity for public discussion before the board decides what to propose to the voters?

The administrators provide their rationale to the board before the directors act on the administrators’ recommendations, so providing it to the public in writing on the district’s Web site should be easy.

Of course, the school district might make all relevant information readily available and end up with no actual discussion. If no one raises questions or makes comments, there can be only a monologue, not a dialogue.

Any strenuous objections from voters could possibly doom the measure in the February election, but this would be the outcome whenever the objections are raised.

Wouldn’t it be better to hear and deal with any objections before choosing what to place on the ballot?

Even the voters who merely want a basis for believing that the directors and administrators have done the work expected of them before proposing the levy amounts may want them to show how they arrived at those amounts.

The levy amounts may need to be significantly higher than they have been, and voters need to know the reasons for such increases. Leaving it to their imaginations isn’t always a good plan.

South Kitsap’s total property valuation rose much more than the statewide average during the first part of the current 4-year M&O levy’s duration, so the “levy equalization” funding provided by the state decreased.

While all other funding increased, the decline in levy equalization funds offset a significant part of the increases. The result has been less levy-generated revenue than had been planned when the voters approved the current levy.

But this difference between the planned amounts of levy-generated revenue and the actual amounts is not necessarily something that requires us to increase the next levy.

If increases from other sources satisfy the needs that were to be met by local levy revenue, then there is no budget shortfall. It is the lack of that other funding which creates the need for a local levy in the first place.

State funding based on enrollment has naturally been affected by the district’s declining enrollment, but not all the costs of operating our schools are directly related to enrollment.

For example, the costs of utilities, transportation, maintenance, and administration for each school building may remain nearly the same even though the number of students in the building has declined.

Nevertheless, when enrollment declines significantly — as it has over the past 10 years — total costs do go down. So, the district must reduce its number of employees or show the voters why they should pay more to keep them.

Those of us who recall the effects of higher petroleum prices 30 years ago won’t be surprised if inflation increases over the next few years.

It was nice to have a local school levy that increased by approximately 4 percent a year for the past several years, but it may need to increase by more in the coming few years.

The uncertainty about inflation presents a difficult choice, since excess levy amounts approved by voters cannot be increased during the levy’s duration.

It might seem nice to have what some people call the “stability” of a 4-year M&O levy, but not if inflation rises faster than expected.

Voters cannot know whether their incomes will keep up with inflation either; so setting the proposed yearly levy increases too high may be a deal breaker for some people.

Even when the excess levy can be approved by a simple majority, there is plenty to consider and discuss before choosing what to put on the ballot.

Robert Meadows is a

Port Orchard resident

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