4/6/2016 10:12:00 AM Eyes trained on school budget
About 30 people, including several who are not school employees, were poring over the La Conner School District budget again last Wednesday. It was the second in a series of seven workshops for the public put together by school Finance Director Bonnie Haley, Superintendent Tim Bruce and senior administrator Peg Seeling, who will take the helm as interim superintendent in July. At the workshop, people on both the “yes” and “no” sides of the levy peacefully sat side by side, working to familiarize themselves with the school funding process. With ballots in the mail this week for the April 26 special election seeking voter approval of a $995,000 levy for the school district, local interest in the school budget has never been higher. The class “exercise” was to look at funding sources over which the district has local control, such as levy money, school lunch prices, activity fees, and find places that can produce more money. It was pretty obvious that residents who pay property tax make up the biggest revenue source in the local dollars column. The challenge for the school district is that the school levies, which used to pass handily with little fanfare, became the flashpoint in a tax revolt after 931 homes on leased tribal land were taken off the tax rolls last year, shifting the tax burden to the remaining taxpayers. In February voters rejected a pair of two-year levies totaling nearly $1.5 million. The school district is hoping a pared down one-year levy will pass this time. Voters have dug in on both sides of the issue. Some of the politicking has been divisive. Over the last sev-eral weeks, campaign signs have been stolen and vandalized, and there have even been allegations of racism aimed at “no” people — something alluded to in a March 24 King 5 television report that also claimed the district “could come crashing down” should the levy fail. The school district’s second budget workshop drew an even larger group of participants than the first one, as more people come out to sift through the hyperbole. Future sessions will examine places in the budget where cuts can be made, because whether or not the levy passes, the school district will probably have to make some cuts when the school board adopts the 2016-2017 school year budget in July. Everyone in the workshop was supplied with a copy of the current school year budget for the 2015-2016 school year. The current budget can also be seen online at the district’s website, lcsd.wednet.edu. Something that is very apparent in the first few pages is that the district has nearly $1.2 million in its reserve account, and its entire budget this year is $10.2 million — much larger than last year’s budget of $9.3 million. The district’s general fund budget shows there was an increase of $700,000 in state funding for the 2015-2016 school year and an increase of more than $400,000 in federal money. The district was required to spend the additional money on state-mandated and union-negotiated pay increases for school staff, and it wasn’t enough, Business Manager Haley said. About 2.3 percent of the district’s reserve was used to balance the budget. Also, the $400,000 contribution from Swinomish in 2015 is not reflected in this year’s budget, which was adopted last July, before the tribe sent over the checks. Haley said that money will be included in the 2016-2017 budget. Meanwhile, the state Legislature is under court order to fully fund basic education in the schools. State Rep. Dave Hayes, R- Camano Island, stopped by the newspaper office on Thursday and said that since almost every school district is violating the state’s constitution by paying teachers out of levy money — which is supposed to fund extra-curricular activities such as sports and drama — a task force has been established to figure out how to fix it. Since there is a shortage of good teachers, districts offer TRI pay — “time responsibility and incentive” — to attract and retain teachers. Hayes said the task force will try to figure out what percentage of teacher pay actually comes from levies. He said he expects the Legislature in 2017 to consider enacting a “levy swap,” in which the state would take control of all the school levies statewide and re-distribute the money. The idea is that property owners in poor districts with high levies will see tax decreases, while property owners in rich districts with low levies would pay more. “It reduces local control,” Hayes said, “and that’s what I have a problem with.” On the other hand, the Legislature has to do something. “The state has sat back and allowed local districts to violate state law,” he said. He said unions are opposed to the levy swap because if the state takes over levies and teacher salaries, it would eliminate the TRI pay, which is often union-negotiated. Should a levy swap bill be passed by the Legislature, it would take effect in July 2017, he said. Hayes couldn’t say what effect a levy swap would have on La Conner taxpayers. It depends on what the task force determines. Would La Conner School District be considered rich, because it spends more per student than the state average? Or is it poor because its property tax base shrunk after the Great Wolf Lodge decision? While the state figures out how to uphold its mandate to fund education, voters in La Conner have a great opportunity to see the bones of the local school budget before they fill out their ballots in coming weeks. The school district has scheduled a public forum on the levy proposal for 5 p.m. on Monday, April 11, followed at 6 p.m. by the third in its series of public budget workshops.