Ballots for the Feb. 3 election have begun arriving in mailboxes, and greater Spokane Valley residents will find a host of school districts on the ballot, all running replacement maintenance and operations levies.
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 up to 20 percent of the annual budget. The money is used to pay for things the state either doesn’t fund at all 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 reapproved 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 that aren’t fully funded.
West Valley in particular uses its levy money to subsidize transportation. The state will not reimburse the district for busing students who live within a one-mile radius of their school. The district is scattered with barriers like the Spokane River, I-90 and busy arterials that require it to bus students who live within that one-mile circle. Railroad tracks force some students who live within sight of their school to ride the bus.
“We don’t want kids walking through hazards,” said West Valley Deputy Superintendent Doug Madsen. A total of 678 children who live within a mile of their school ride the bus in West Valley.
Freeman, a sprawling rural district, also needs to use 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.
West Valley is running a replacement technology levy on the ballot in addition to its replacement maintenance and operations levy. The expected cost of the M&O levy is a reduction of 15 percent from the expiring levy, said Madsen.
Central Valley is running a replacement maintenance and operations levy that provides 19 percent of its annual budget. The district has broken down the cost and estimates that of each levy dollar, 80 cents goes to fund educational programs that include extra teachers, textbooks, technology, special education and teaching supplies. Of the remaining money, two cents per dollar is used for nutrition services, eight cents is for transportation and 10 cents funds extracurricular activities like music, drama, debate and sports.
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. Each district is taking a different approach when deciding how much levy equalization money to replace.
Central Valley has been getting $1.2 million a year in levy equalization money and is prepared for it to go away entirely. “We’ve made the assumption we’ll get none,” said Central Valley Superintendent Ben Small. “If we get some, it will be rolled back to taxpayers.”
“We are assuming we will have partial levy equalization,” said West Valley’s Madsen.
The levy is structured to replace 75 percent of the levy equalization money the district currently received. If the money is cut completely, the district will lose about $250,000 per year. “We decided not to go back and add that on,” he said. “If it stays with the governor’s budget, we’ll be OK.”
Freeman, on the other hand, 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. In November the district lost $13,000 because of the governor’s cuts. “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.”
Small doesn’t like the inequality of the cuts to levy equalization money. “Our voters deserve solid footing with other communities,” he said. “We will advocate for keeping it. It doesn’t impact every district. The winners are those who will not lose money.
“We believe there will be others who propose deeper cuts to levy equalization. I think we’re in a fight for it. It has been under attack for a long time.”
Levy equalization money aside, all the districts face devastating cuts if the levies do not pass. All would plan to bring their levies back for another try in April or May if they do fail. “We’ll put another measure on the ballot in April,” Small said. “At the same time, we’ll start making plans to cut programs, because you can’t wait until April to do that.”
Last year Central Valley cut $1.5 million from its budget, a move that impacted several programs and got a lot of negative attention from parents. As a comparison, the levy provides $24 million per year.
West Valley, which gets 20 percent of its budget from its levy, doesn’t want a repeat of 2006 when the district’s levy failed on the first try. The district will bring it back in April if it has to, Madsen said. The alternative is a gutted district. “It would be devastating to our district,” he said. “It would impact every program we have.”
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