School ‘levy equalization’ funds under legislative scrutiny

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Teresa Baldwin is the Washougal School District superintendent.

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Mike Nerland is the Camas School District superintendent.

Most school districts in the state of Washington collect voter-approved levy funds to fill the gap between what the state allocates for education and the actual cost of quality staff and programs for students.

School taxes paid by property owners are based on two metrics, the fixed dollar amount set by the district and the total assessed value of all properties within the district.

In a school district where the total assessed valuation of all properties is high, it costs taxpayers less to raise $500,000 than a district where the total assessed property value is low. Thriving businesses and industrial corporations add to a community’s tax base and offset levy costs that otherwise would be paid by local residents.

As a result, a district with high property assessed valuation can collect more tax dollars for education and more dollars for quality staff and programs than a district with a lower assessed property valuation.

This inequity across the state and among school districts prompted the legislature to pass Local Effort Assistance in 1987. When local taxpayers approve a school levy, the Local Effort Assistance provides additional funds called “Levy Equalization” funds to districts with lower assessed property value.

School boards plan levy proposals for voters based on a fixed amount needed to operate the district, minus the amount that will be allocated from the Local Effort Assistance. For years, districts and local taxpayers have relied upon the additional state levy equalization funds to augment the levy collection from local property owners.

During the next few weeks, state legislators will consider whether or not to continue Local Effort Assistance funds.

For eight of the nine Clark County school districts, including Camas and Washougal, levy equalization is critical to maintaining acceptable class sizes and quality learning programs. This year, Camas receives $967,000 in levy equalization dollars and Washougal receives $680,000. In all, Clark County school districts receive $31 million in levy equalization funds.

What is truly unfair about cutting levy equalization is that it only impacts some districts. For example, if levy equalization were eliminated, the combined loss in revenue for the Camas and Washougal school districts would be $1.647 million. The combined loss of revenue for the Seattle and Bellevue school districts? Zero.

Any reduction in LEA funds is a failure on the part of the legislature to make good on the state’s promise to provide funds that will level the playing field and augment local taxpayer levy dollars.

We acknowledge that in these difficult economic times, school districts are not exempt from taking funding cuts. Two major funding sources have already been eliminated from all school districts’ funding — in 2009, the state eliminated Student Achievement funds provided by a state-wide voter approved initiative for teacher professional development and lower class size; this year, K-4 Enhancement funds, specifically allocated to reduce class sizes in the lower grades, have been reduced by 75 percent. Over the past two years, Washougal has lost $1.5 million in these two funding categories, and Camas has lost $5.3 million in these same categories. School districts in Clark County and around the state have modified school programs and budgets to accommodate the loss of these funds.

It is now time to draw the line and remind the legislature that school districts have already taken significant reductions in Student Achievement and K-4 Enhancement funds. An additional 6.3 percent across-the-board cut issued by Gov. Chris Gregoire in December 2010 would also negatively impact schools, if approved by the legislature. Any further funding cuts, particularly the elimination or reduction of levy equalization funds, is unacceptable.

From the perspective of superintendents, intervening in time to stop the possible elimination or reduction of LEA funds is the number one communication priority with the state legislature.

Superintendents around the state are rallying this month, communicating a message to state legislators the importance of protecting and preserving levy equalization funds. We hope our communities will likewise support this effort.

For more information, please refer to the Washington State Legislative website (www.leg.wa.gov/pages/home.aspx).

Teresa Baldwin and Mike Nerland are superintendents of the Washougal and Camas school districts, respectively.