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Rural Schools Get Hard Lesson In Economics Levy-Equalization Bill Failed To Help Districts That Needed It Most

School officials throughout Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties gathered here Tuesday to plead with their legislators for help with a funding crunch the Legislature helped create.

Colville School Superintendent Rick Cole said a levy-equalization bill that 7th District legislators helped pass this year failed to help most of the schools the legislators represent.

The bill actually increases the gap between wealthy urban school districts and their cash-starved rural counterparts in the 7th District, Cole said.

At the same time, schools in rural northeastern Washington lost state money this year because of declines in enrollment, apparently caused by welfare reform, said Chewelah School Superintendent Marcia Costello.

Costello said her district had 46 fewer students this year than were projected in its budget, Newport had 110 fewer and Republic had 32 fewer students. Colville had an actual decline in enrollment of 48 from the previous school year.

Each lost student costs the districts about $3,650 in state support, Costello noted.

She and other school officials believe much of the declining enrollment was caused by welfare recipients moving to Spokane and other large cities in search of work required by welfare reform.

Costello urged legislators to gradually decrease state contributions when enrollment drops, instead of cutting off the money abruptly. Districts that planned for larger enrollments can’t immediately lay off teachers or close buildings, she said.

“It sounds like a good idea and something that we can support,” said state Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Kettle Falls. “I just want to make sure it works and it will really do what it’s supposed to do.”

McMorris said she doesn’t want to have to apologize again for misfiring legislation such as the levy-equalization bill Cole cited.

She and the 7th District’s other two legislators said they thought the bill would help schools in their area, and said school officials and their lobbyists failed to tell them otherwise.

Now, they said, it will be difficult to correct the problem because they have lost their leverage with Western Washington legislators who have already gotten what they wanted out of the bill.

The problem is in a complicated formula that contributes state taxes to match local school levies in a ratio based on how much industry and other expensive property a district has in its tax base. Legislators offered to give poor districts up to 2 percent more of their budget.

But Cole said most school districts in Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties can’t get voters to pass levies large enough to meet the threshold for receiving the extra money. Most can’t even come close, he said.

While rich districts were given permission to raise their local levies from 20 percent to 24 percent of their budgets, Cole said Colville did well to collect 4.6 percent.

On top of that problem, Cole said districts in northern Stevens County were hurt by a near doubling of assessed values. The higher values caused the state to cut $148,602 from the district’s state levy equalization funding.

Cole also called for help in the way tax refunds are handled when large companies appeal their assessments and win refunds for previous tax years. Successful appeals by several big timber companies cost the Colville School District about $100,000.

The district had already spent the money, and now is having to pay it back from its current operating levy.

, DataTimes