School districts wary as special sessions opens

Plateau school leaders are not optimistic about the outcome of the special session Legislators headed into Monday.

Superintendents in the Enumclaw and White River school districts are anticipating millions of more dollars will be slashed from their already thin budgets.

Getting a handle on it will be like sighting a moving target, White River Superintendent Tom Lockyer said at the White River School Board meeting Nov. 16.

His counterpart in Enumclaw, Mike Nelson, and district business manager Tim Madden discussed the budget with community members Nov. 14 as part of a tour for Focus on Education Week and again at Monday night’s Enumclaw School Board meeting.

“I really don’t like this time of year, because it’s all speculation,” Madden said.

The governor’s proposed budget would lop off more than $500 million from education programs — reductions that would shave four days off the school year and reduce levy equalization payments.

Both would be problematic for the district, Madden said.

Nelson, whose district has made $4.2 million in cuts since 2007, is concerned his district will loose another $686,000 if Local Effort Assistance money disappears.

School districts supplement basic education funding with local school levies. Local levies are voted by district taxpayers and spread among taxpayers in the district. The higher a school district’s tax base, the lower the tax rate for taxpayers. School districts with higher tax bases can raise more levy funds than school districts with lower tax bases. To address this disparity, the state created LEA, or levy equalization.

Local school districts are capped at 28 percent of the levy base, and levy equalization is capped at 14 percent.

Levy equalization only funds 50 percent of the disparity between property-poor and property-rich districts.

For Enumclaw, considered a property-poor district, levy equalization money supports extra-curricular programs, transportation, staff, food service, special education and highly capable.

Madden also noted the federal government recently announced reductions in its program funding like special education and career and technology money.

“We are expecting there will be additional reductions during the budget year,” Nelson said.

It’s a similar story for White River, which has also slashed its budget by millions in the past five years.

White River’s business manager Mona Moan said her district is also preparing for worst-case scenario, anticipating the loss of $700,000 in LEA money. Talk at the state level has also suggested increasing class size by two students, which would equate to an additional $655,000 for her district to swallow.

Top that with declining enrollment and the fund balance which was used to balance the books and the district could be looking at $3 million.

She said there could be tough decisions this year.

In the year-end report she gave the school board at its Nov. 16 meeting, Moan noted the district received $1.3 million dollars in stimulus federal funding, $900,000 of which replaced state funding that the district did not receive.

The district collected $550,000 more in property taxes and timber excise tax in 2010-11 than the year before.

Local and state funding for food service was down, she said, but Federal funding was up. The food service, which is now run by the district rather than an outside company, finished in the black by $9,000.

On a positive note, the district did bring in some revenue with the sale of the former post office building, $177,000, and timber sales of $1.3 million from its property. But that money must return to the capital projects fund.

Another bright spot, Moan said the district’s existing debt will be paid off by December 2017.  That includes two-voter approved bonds and two-non-voted bonds, an energy loan and a bus loan.

To help districts, the governor has proposed a temporary one-half cent sales tax increase that would need voter approval. If approved, the increase would raise $494 million through June 30, 2013, and expire July 1, 2015. The additional revenue would prevent cuts to critical services in three specific areas including education.

She said her proposal would stop a $100 million cut from shortening the school year and a $152 million reduction to the state’s levy equalization program.