Town and school district officials were in Olympia on Tuesday to bring attention to the financial impacts of a federal court ruling. Shown here seated from left are La Conner School District Business Administrator Bonnie Haley, Mayor Ramon Hayes, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, School Board President Rick Thompson, Town Administrator John Doyle and standing at left, Councilman Bill Stokes, Dorn’s Chief of Staff Ken Kanikeberg, Rep. Smith’s Legislative Assistant Kelley Hays, and seated at far right attorneys Cynthia Weed and Bart Freedman.
A delegation of school and town officials traveled to Olympia on Tuesday to let state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn know La Conner needs help right now. The meeting was set up by State Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, who said “kids are at risk” because La Conner School District suffered a huge funding cut this year. What amounts to about 50 percent of the district’s property tax revenue was eliminated when 931 parcels were removed from the county’s tax rolls in January. As a result, remaining property owners in the La Conner area were hit with bigger tax bills this year to make up part of the loss. That’s why the town and the school teamed up to lobby; if Olympia makes up the losses, the schools and the town’s taxpayers will get some relief. This is all fallout from a federal court ruling, known as the Great Wolf decision, that deems all structures on land held in trust by the federal government for Indian tribes exempt from county and state taxes, regardless of who owns the structures. In the La Conner School District, about two-thirds of the enrollment lives on Swinomish Indian Tribal Community land – with kids coming from homes in the gated Shelter Bay Community and the Pull & Be Damned Road neighborhood built on leased reservation land. Those homes generated about $800,000 in property taxes for the school district last year. The tribe has pledged to contribute money to the schools, but the amount promised won’t close the funding gap. Therefore, the tax burden was shifted to the non-tribal properties in the district. On Tuesday, La Conner Mayor Ramon Hayes, Town Councilman Bill Stokes, La Conner School Board President Rick Thompson and school district Business Director Bonnie Haley rode together to the state’s capitol to meet with Dorn. Also, at the meeting were La Conner Town Administrator John Doyle and attorneys Cynthia Weed and Bart Freedman of the KL Gates law firm. Weed is an expert in school bonding, and Freedman is expert in Indian law. It turned out that Rep. Smith, who arranged the meeting, was unable to attend. Still, “It went very well,” Thompson said. “We came with some practical suggestions on how we can get immediate relief.” Thompson said he believes the state schools chief will go to bat for La Conner. The next step is to lobby the state legislators to carve out emergency money for La Conner in the state budget they’re working on right now. Haley said the town-school delegation will prepare a letter asking for levy equalization funds and also for a state match for the construction that is underway. She said the district will eventually receive more funding from the state, but “we’re asking for special consideration to get it sooner.” In 2013 voters in the district, including those in now county tax exempt Shelter Bay, passed a $20 million school construction bond, which, unless there is help from the state, must be borne by the remaining taxpayers. That is why the mayor and town officials spearheaded the lobbying effort. “Lets hold our breath and see what comes of it,” Mayor Hayes said. “It was highly worthwhile that our lawmakers and state officials are aware of this situation and the urgency regarding funding. We are approaching this as a financial issue that we have to solve.” Next the local lobbyists will target federal lawmakers to try and gain tax relief for residents impacted by the Great Wolf decision. Though the homeowners on the leased tribal land no longer pay school district and other public property taxes, they recently received bills from the Swinomish Tax Authority, which has set the same levy rate the county assessed this year on privately owned land.