Opinion

Levy could bring in more, or less, than SKSD needs

Ballots will soon arrive for the Feb. 3 South Kitsap School District (SKSD) maintenance-and-operations excess levy election.

If approved by a majority of voters, the annual levy amounts proposed by the district’s board of directors would be collected in 2010 through 2013.

Local funding for school years 2009-10 through 2013-14 would be provided by the levy.

Property taxes are collected on a calendar year basis, but the school district’s fiscal year runs from September through August.

Planning for a four-year levy that affects five school years involves lots of uncertainties, but the alternative (more frequent elections for shorter levy periods) is no better.

The biggest uncertainty is whether voters will approve the levy, even when only a simple majority rather than the previous “supermajority” is required.

Our public schools rely on local tax revenue for a significant part of total funding, so voters’ rejection of a ballot measure hits hard.

Statewide, local funding constitutes about 20 percent of school district general fund revenues.

Revenue generated by the levy for SKSD represents about 18 percent of the district’s funding, if both the levy amount and levy equalization funding from the state are included as levy-generated funding.

Rather than face the uncertain election outcome more often, most school districts do as SKSD does — propose a four-year levy so that the amount of local funding can be known for a longer period into the future.

Since elections cost the school district quite a bit of money that could otherwise be spent to pay for the education of our community’s children, spacing the elections four years apart has the added advantage of making more funding available for the classroom.

Other uncertainties involve possible reductions in state funding that the current recession may cause and potential increases in costs during the next five years.

If the Legislature follows the governor’s lead, SKSD and many other districts will receive less levy equalization funding (called “Local Effort Assistance” or “LEA” by the state) for school years 2009-10 through 2011-12.

When LEA funding from the state is reduced, the district must ask for more from local taxpayers — or do without.

As a result of our soaring property values in the recent past, LEA funding declined. When our assessed values increased faster than the statewide average, our apparent need for LEA based on the formula used by the state also declined.

LEA is calculated by comparing the statewide average tax rate to the local tax rate needed to collect a levy equal to 12 percent of regular state and federal funding.

The higher the local rate compared to the statewide rate, the more LEA is apparently required to reduce the difference in local tax burdens.

You might reasonably argue that our ability to pay didn’t rise as fast as our assessed property values, but finding another way to calculate LEA that would more closely approximate the need in each district may not be possible.

Besides, that argument has to be made to our legislators, not our school district. We and our school district have to deal with the fact that LEA for 2009 is $1.4 million — about $950,000 less than the amount in 2004 when the planning for our current four-year levy was done.

The uncertainty about future LEA funding couldn’t be avoided when planning for the levy then, and a similar uncertainty cannot be avoided when considering the proposed four-year levy.

Some things had to be postponed when LEA funding was less than anticipated and costs were higher than expected, and something similar could happen during the next four-year levy despite the district’s planning.

The governor has proposed cutting LEA by 33 percent in 2010 and 2011. So if the Legislature agrees, LEA may be reduced by another $460,000 in each of those years.

The proposed levy for 2010 is $16.4 million, which is 14.6 percent more than this year’s $14.3 million levy, because our school district needs to catch up with the effects of things that turned out to be worse than expected.

For 2011 through 2013, the proposed levy amounts are $16.9 million, $17.75 million, and $19 million — amounts that are intended to keep up with anticipated increases in pension costs, inflation, and possible commodity price spikes like that which occurred last year with petroleum products.

Maybe these proposed amounts will turn out to be more than enough, but they have to be high enough to cover reasonably foreseeable costs. They cannot be increased after voter approval of the four-year levy proposition.

For school district administrators and teachers, dealing with uncertainties in the levy plan means worrying about unavoidable budget shortfalls.

For voters, dealing with these uncertainties necessarily involves accepting the possibility that we may approve more than turns out to be absolutely necessary.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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