Tonasket Schools to ask for $1.15 million replacement levy

TONASKET – Faced with looming deadlines and uncertainty from a special legislative session in Olympia, the Tonasket School Board approved a $1.15 million levy that, if passed by voters, will replace the currently expiring maintenance and operations levy. If approved, the levy would provide funding beginning in Jan. 2013.

The election will take place Feb. 14, 2012. If the levy fails, an identical or revised levy could be put back up for vote Apr. 17.

At current property valuations, the rate represents and increase from $2.22 per $1,000 of property value to $2.57, or $257 per $100,000 of a property’s assessed value.

“With collections not starting until 2013, we’re really trying to look into a crystal ball,” said school superintendent Paul Turner. “The other thing we’re trying to do is get the district back up to operating at a full day (which it has not since the late 1990s). The price of running the district is going up with no funding increases in sight.”

In fact, Governor Chris Gregoire’s proposals could cut nearly $140,000 from the district’s Levy Equalization Act (LEA) funding. If approved by the legislature, that would decrease that funding from $749,000 in the 2010-11 school year and an anticipated $762,000 this school year to $624,000 per year in the 2012-14 two-year cycle.

Complicating matters is the fact that the legislature’s special session, at which it was hoped such budget decisions would be finalized, appears to be coming to an end without the decisions being made that would enable school districts to plan their futures with more certainty.

The decision of what level to set the levy at didn’t come without plenty of discussion.

“I have a problem asking the voters of the district to make up for what the state is going to take away,” said board member Lloyd Caton, who cast the lone dissenting vote against the levy amount.

“We really have to raise the mill rate if it turns out the Governor goes through with the LEA reduction,” said board member Catherine Stangland. “Otherwise how are we going to survive? Once we don’t ask the voters and the funding drops, it makes it a lot harder to go back. Basically this keeps us where we’re at, with possibly a slight increase, and it accounts for the governor’s proposed decrease.”

She also noted that to add the hour to the school day that would put the district back at running a full day of school would require the district to nearly double its levy amount.

“We would probably need to get the levy up to about $4.50,” she said. “Right now we’re just trying to stay where we’re at.”

Asked what the consequences would be of running the levy at the current rate and trying to absorb state funding decreases, Turner said that his recommendation would be to cut funding for textbook purchases and for facility upgrades, maintenance and repairs.

“The cuts can only come from basic education (non discretionary) funds,” he said. “Those (cuts) would probably have the least impact on our student programs.”

Board member Ty Olson questioned considering cutting back on textbook purchases.

“If we’re here to educate the students, why cut textbook purchases?” he asked. “Isn’t that what we’re here for?”

“In the last two years we put quite a bit of money into textbook purchases,” Turner said. “We’re not caught up, but we could maintain where we’re at to get us through.”

Board chair Jerry Asmussen noted the long-term consequences of delaying maintenance projects.

“The cost of maintenance is going to go up,” he said. “The buildings are 20 years old now. With the last set of buildings we deferred a lot of maintenance, and it caught up with us.”

After the 2010 election that kept the levy at its previous rate, federal stimulus funding helped make up for cuts in the state budget. Given the state of the economy, federal funding won’t be providing any type of cushion against state cuts this time around.

“I hate to ask the taxpayers to have to pick up where the state leaves off,” Olson said. “But on the other hand, it’s our duty to give a bit back where it can make a difference here at home.”

Also, following a brief executive session, Turner announced that the school board had finalized union contracts with three bargaining units that were necessitated by last May’s state-wide budget cut that forced local districts to either “eat” the cost of the cut or renegotiate its personnel contracts.

The state mandated a 3 percent cut in administrator’s salaries; the Tonasket administrators agreed to take a 1.9 percent cut without reducing their work hours for a total savings of $9,874.

The teachers agreed to compensate for their 1.9 percent salary cut with four early release days, including three that were originally intended for professional development, and one early release day that had not been originally scheduled. An additional 18 hours of professional development time will be paid for through Title I funds. The total amounts to a reduction of $60,824.

The classified staff agreed to a one day reduction in vacation pay, along with one directed professional development day, for a savings of $11,999.

In other business, three board members took the Oath of Office, including Olson, who was newly elected to the District 3 position. Catherine Stangland (District 2) and Jerry Asmussen (District 5) also took their oaths after being reelected to their posts.

Revamping of the district’s policies continued as the board approved third and final readings of policies dealing with infectious diseases and anti-harassment/bullying. Second and final readings of other policies from the 3000 series were approved as they had had no changes made to them since their first readings. First readings of the 4000 series of policies was also approved.

The board finalized the process of adjusting the directors’ districts to reflect results of the 2010 census. The revised legal description of the districts was approved.

Other items of business included the board’s approval of hiring of Brenda Grove as the girls basketball C-squad coach; the announcement of Bob Ashmore as the new GEAR-UP director for the district; and the approval of four overnight road trips for the wrestling team.

Turner reported that enrollment was unchanged for November at 1,055.84 students in the district.

The next school board meeting will be held Monday, Jan. 9, at 7 p.m. in the district board room.