Due to a clerical error the East Valley School District failed to collect half of a $3 million transportation levy taxpayers approved in April 2015.
The oversight was “really kind of a breakdown in our system,” Superintendent Kelly Shea said. “We thought we’d done what we needed to do and found out we had not.”
The two-year levy was passed to replace the district’s aging buses, some of which are 18 years old. The district failed to certify the levy, however, meaning the county didn’t collect any levy money in 2016.
Shea said they discovered the mistake in late May, although the assessor’s office sent the district an email in February detailing the amount of money being collected. Shea said no one at the district noticed the transportation levy wasn’t included in that total. Even if they had noticed, Shea said, it was too late to start collecting the tax.
The district has two options now, Shea said. It can collect half the original levy amount in 2017 and buy half the number of buses promised to voters – $1.5 million and 12 new buses. Under that option, the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $8.50 per month in additional property taxes.
The second option is to collect the full $3 million in 2017 and buy all 25 buses the district needs, a course of action that would cost the owner of a $200,000 home $17 per month in additional property taxes.
On Friday the district sent a letter to all East Valley School District residents explaining the situation. The East Valley school board will hold meetings at East Valley High School on Sept. 27 and Sept. 29 to gather feedback from residents. The board will decide what to do after those meetings, Shea said.
Dave Loomer, a levy specialist for the Spokane County Assessor’s Office, said it’s the taxing district’s responsibility to send a letter requesting levy monies. The assessor’s office will contact a taxing district if they see something missing, but in this case the assessor’s office didn’t notice the missing document, he said. The certification letter was due to the assessor’s office in November.
Although the school district’s director of fiscal services is primarily in charge of the levy process, Shea said, “We don’t put it on the shoulders of any one person.”
No one in the district has been disciplined, Shea said, emphasizing the importance of moving forward. In the future there will be more interaction between people with different roles and responsibilities, he said.
Mike Novakovich, chairman of the school board, said he thinks the mistake was caused by a transition of leadership. Shea became the superintendent in July 2015 after a school board shakeup and the resignation of then-Superintendent John Glenewinkel.
“I think that was mostly it, a district in transition and people getting comfortable with how much they communicate with their superiors and how much they don’t,” Novakovich said.
Although the district has tried unsuccessfully to pass five bonds since 2008, Novakovich doesn’t think the mistake will negatively impact the community’s willingness to support schools. He points to how easily February’s levy passed, and the importance of proposing specific and well-researched bond measures.
“It’s obviously one of those things that will never happen again in our school district, I guarantee you,” he said.
East Valley School District’s annual operating budget is $53 million, and there are roughly 4,000 students in the district. The district hired Gallatin Public Affairs to help communicate news about the levy glitch. The district has paid the firm $5,000 so far and has capped what they can spend at $10,000, Shea said.
“My hope is that being transparent and being honest are values that matter,” Shea said, adding, “A mistake was made, we’ve identified the mistake. We now know what we have to do.”
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