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Freeman prepares for levy vote

Ballots for the Feb. 3 election have begun arriving in mailboxes, and Freeman School District is joining several other districts running a replacement maintenance and operations levy. The districts usually coordinate their levies so they all expire at the same time and can all be on the same ballot to save money.

Levy money is a significant part of each district’s income, accounting for nearly a quarter of the annual budget in some cases. The money is used to pay for things the state either doesn’t fund or doesn’t fully fund. The cash raised with a levy can only be spent for normal day-to-day operations. It can’t be used for construction or other projects. The levies expire every few years and must be approved by voters.

Some things the state doesn’t fund at all include extracurricular activities, technology and textbooks. Levy money is also traditionally used for extra teachers to reduce class sizes and to subsidize programs like food services, special education and transportation.

Freeman, a sprawling rural district, needs to use some of its levy money to pay for unique transportation challenges.

“Unfortunately, we do not run our buses as the crow flies and that’s how we’re funded,” said Freeman Superintendent Sergio Hernandez. “We’re only funded from point to point.”

The maintenance and operations levy provides 17 percent of Freeman’s annual budget. In years past, the district also ran a technology levy, but for this election the two have been combined.

“We will each year set aside $130,000 for technology,” Hernandez said.

A wild card this election is levy-equalization money. The money is given to property-poor school districts, mostly in Eastern Washington, which have assessed home values below the state average. Gov. Chris Gregoire cut the money by 3.4 percent for November and her recently proposed budget calls for additional cuts of 33 percent.

Freeman lost $13,000 in November. The district, however, did not raise its levy rate to account for possible cuts.

“We’re not factoring that in because we want to keep our tax rate as level as possible to what they’re currently paying,” Hernandez said.

“We are trying to run a very lean operation and meet the needs of our students.”

Hernandez knows that his district will have to do more with less. “We know some will go away,” he said. “There are going to be challenging days ahead. We have already started looking at possible cuts. Everything is on the table for consideration.”