Deer Park School District Again Asking Voters To Approve Expiring Levy
District Is Anxious For Voters To Understand This Is Not A New Tax
Local residents will have one more chance to vote on the Deer Park School District’s request to renew their expiring Maintenance and Operation (M&O) levy during the upcoming special election on April 17th. The levy measure was narrowly defeated in the February 14th election, with a 50.78 % no vote to 49.22 % yes. The special election represents the last chance the district has to pass the levy before substantial budget cuts go into effect for 2013, as state law only allows two levy attempts in a calendar year. District officials contend a levy failure would have devastating consequences, since the district would lose roughly 30% of its current operating budget.
The Deer Park levy was one of only five throughout the state that failed, while 152 others were approved. Among those failing was Riverside School District’s dual request for a maintenance and operations replacement levy, plus a capital levy measure for building repairs. Both were soundly defeated with a less than 40% yes vote. Their M and O levy will also be back on the April 17th ballot, although they have scaled back their original requested rate and dropped the capital levy altogether.
Lots of factors played a part in Deer Park’s levy failure, including voters who may have supported the measure but didn’t get around to voting. The district has a long history of passing levies, so many people who supported it may have assumed the levy would pass without their vote. However, this was one election where “One Vote Can Make A Difference” turned out to be true, as passing and failing amounted to a difference of just 53 votes.
Other factors also came into play. A last minute direct mail campaign by an anti-levy group may have also negatively influenced the outcome, as the campaign material was somewhat misleading. Timing was also a problem, as the election came on the heels of Stevens County’s new property Tax assessments that caused many residents to see an increase in their taxes.
Those issues aside, school district officials are anxious to make sure everyone clearly understands this time around exactly what the levy will cost, and what is at stake if it fails.
A critical fact to note about this levy is that it simply replaces the existing levy, dollar for dollar, and is not a new Tax. In fact, the requested levy rate on the April ballot is actually 13 cents lower than what was on the February 14th ballot, due to new property assessments. Originally the district estimated they needed $2.59 per $1,000 of assessed value to raise $1.96 million for 2013, but based on the new assessments, only $2.46 per $1,000 will be required.
Another important point is that 70% of Deer Park’s levy funds are used to support educational programs, with the remaining 30% used for athletics, activities, building maintenance and utilities. Many people are under the mistaken impression the state fully funds Basic Education, and that levy monies are used for “extras” the district can live without during difficult economic times. While levy revenue was originally intended to fund “enhancements,” it has been many years since that has happened. Levy funds and matching funds from the state now account for roughly 30% of the Deer Park School District’s operating budget.
State funding for education has taken a drastic hit over the last decade due to declining Tax revenues, and school districts are consistently receiving less and less from the state each year. Just since 2009, K-12 education has been hit with more than $1 billion in cuts, and the Deer Park District alone has absorbed a loss of over $2.8 million in state funds over the past three years.
School districts find themselves caught in a difficult situation, as the state mandates certain criteria must be met in order for students to graduate, such as requiring a specified number of credits in certain subjects, yet funds are not fully provided to the districts to help them deliver all of these educational requirements. The state expects local communities to support school levies to make up the difference between what the state pays and what it actually costs to provide a quality education. Until the state fully funds Basic Education, local levies will continue to be viewed as a necessary funding source by school districts.
Deer Park uses levy funds for such items as routine maintenance, all-day kindergarten, sports, band, choir, drama and other extracurricular programs, technology staff and equipment, maintenance and nursing personnel, certificated staff, including teachers, librarians, and counselors and para-educators such as teachers aides and assistants who work directly with students. Simply put, current levy dollars support basic school programs and positions.
Another important fact to note is if the levy fails, the district will not qualify for an additional $1.8 million in Levy Equalization Assistance (LEA) Funds. These are state funds intended to supplement local school levies for districts with less than the state average in property values, and they can only be received by a district if they pass their local levy. The levy and LEA funds represent roughly 30% of the Deer Park School District’s total operating budget.
School district supporters contend the district has demonstrated a high level of fiscal skills while absorbing several million in budget cuts over the last few years. Strategies were implemented to maximize efficiencies wherever possible, and substantial budget cuts were made in most areas of operation that did not directly affect quality of education. Staffing was reduced and is below state levels for administrators, district office support staff, and clerical personnel, and all employees took pay cuts.
As far as stretching dollars, the claim can indeed be made that Deer Park administrators have done a pretty good job of it, if student performance is used as the measuring stick. According to statistics from the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, out of all 295 school districts throughout the state, 274 spend more money per student than Deer Park,* yet Deer Park students consistently rank well above state averages on state tests.
While the levy will not restore what has been lost through past budget reductions, or make giant steps forward in program offerings, school district officials contend its passage will at least assure the district can maintain the quality programs and safe and secure buildings they now have.
*Rankings compiled from Office Of Superintendent of Public Instruction website, http://www.k12.wa.us, accessed 3-21-12.
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