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September 22, 2017

12/14/2016 10:13:00 AM
School district to seek a new levy
Sandy Stokes

The La Conner School Board on Monday approved a resolution to ask voters to levy $2.5 million in new taxes on the district’s property owners.
If approved in a special election in February, the money would be collected over two years, in increments of $1.25 million in 2018 and in 2019. The district anticipates its new “replacement educational programs and operations levy” would amount to about $2.50 per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value.
An existing voter-approved construction bond for the new middle school is also on the tax bills. The levy and bond together would bring the entire school portion of a home’s property tax bill to about $5.45 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2018 and 2019, according to La Conner Schools finance director Bonnie Haley.
Last time the district passed an operating levy was in April this year, when voters approved a $1 million one-year levy that takes effect next year. For the first time ever, the district took two tries to get the levy passed, with the first attempt failing in February. The scaled-back levy that finally passed will amount to about $5 per $1,000 in value on a home’s property tax bill in 2017.
Making things tough for school financing here was a tax shift in 2015 of about $1.8 million, when the county took 931 parcels off the county tax rolls in response to a Property Tax Advisory memo from the state Department of Revenue. The state agency asserted that a federal appellate court ruling in Thurston County, the so-called “Great Wolf” decision, made it illegal to collect taxes from any structure on land held in trust for a tribe, regardless of who owns the building
Shelter Bay, a gated community of privately owned homes, was developed on leased Swinomish Indian Tribal Community reservation land. Since the 1960s the county had been levying personal property tax on the homes owned by non-tribal members in Shelter Bay, but not on the land under them. When the properties were removed from the tax rolls, the tax burden was shifted to the remaining taxpayers in the district, causing some bills to rise by thousands of dollars.
Then Swinomish, whose own lawyers were among the tribal attorneys involved in crafting the Department of Revenue advisory, began levying tax on the non-tribal members in Shelter Bay and in the Pull and Be Damned Road neighborhood, where many homes are also built on leased reservation land.
In 2015 the tribe agreed to contribute $400,000 of the tax it collected to the schools — about half the amount the district would have received from the properties removed from the tax rolls. This year, the tribe agreed to contribute $450,000, with $50,000 designated to technology. The district has asked for the same $450,000 deal for 2017, and is awaiting a decision from the tribe.
District Superintendent Peg Seeling said she is willing to meet with groups of people anytime if they want to talk about the new levy proposal.
“We’re going to focus the levy on staffing and technology,” Seeling said. The district has to increase teacher pay to stay competitive enough with other districts to retain staff. And the technology portion will mostly go toward maintaining programs already in place.
Should the new levy pass, school tax in 2017 will still be lower than it is in the current year. This year property owners in the district paid $6.57 per $1,000 of assessed value in school tax.
Haley said at $5.45, the rate is even lower than it was pre “Great Wolf” when the tax rate was $5.69 per $1,000 in assessed value.
Also, the school board on Monday authorized the district to spend $2,500 to have the Washington Association of School Administrators do a review of its expenditures to determine why La Conner spends more per student than other districts its size in the state.
That is something that community members have been asking about since the last levy go-round. Haley said she expects the report will identify extra services the district is able to afford, like para-educators in the primary grades, its preschool program, enhanced food services and low class sizes.
The report should be finished in January, so voters will have it in hand before the levy election in February.
And, should the Washington State Legislature comply with a court order to fully fund the cost of education in 2018, the school board can always decide to collect less money than voters approved, Haley said.

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