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Schools asking voters to replace state funds

Spokane Public Schools’ board agreed Wednesday to ask voters in February to consider paying more taxes in a levy to compensate for potential state cuts to K-12 education.

The region’s largest district is not alone.

District officials throughout the Spokane area are planning to ask voters to approve three-year replacement levies for 2013-’15 plus a few dimes more per $1,000 assessed value for most districts. The increases will reflect the governor’s proposal to eliminate all or some levy equalization dollars – money used to help with revenues in poorer areas.

A 50 percent cut in levy equalization, which would take effect in 2013, would cost Spokane Public Schools $6.6 million per year, more money than in all but three other districts in Washington. Central Valley could lose $4.3 million; Mead would lose $3.4 million and East Valley $946,000. Double those amounts if the districts lose 100 percent of equalization funding.

Levies support programs such as sports, clubs, libraries, gifted-and-talented programs, elementary band and strings, classroom teachers, transportation, high school and middle school electives and special education. Levies and bonds – which pay for buildings and other infrastructure – are not interchangeable.

“We’ve been cutting back for 10 years,” said Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Stowell. “We are at the classroom door.”

For area school districts, levies amount to about 25 percent of their budgets. That’s about $76 million for Spokane Public Schools.

School officials are frustrated about potentially shifting even more of the burden to local property owners, but they fear if they don’t ask for more money and the state reduces or eliminates levy equalization, it would undoubtedly mean cuts to programs.

There’s a codicil in the levies districts plan to propose: If the state does not cut levy equalization funding, then districts will only collect taxes equivalent to the current levy rate. For example, Spokane Public Schools’ rate if the state funding is sustained would be $3.89 per $1,000 assessed value.

Districts have until Dec. 30 to finalize levy amounts. The Legislature is scheduled to go into special session later this month to begin work closing a $2 billion budget gap.

Spokane Public Schools officials are counting on a 65 percent reduction in levy equalization, which would make the tax rate an estimated $4.49 per $1,000 assessed value.

“We are having to guess on what the state’s going to do,” said Mark Anderson, Spokane Public Schools associate superintendent. “We did the same thing three years ago, and we ended up rolling back millions because the cuts didn’t happen.”

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