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Last chance for school district levy

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School officials fear 20 percent budget cuts if the levy fails again

By Brian Beckley

The Courier-Herald

As the April 25 deadline to mail in ballots for the Sumner School District's levy re-vote draws near, the Citizens for Education committee is stepping up its efforts to rally voters' support.

The levy, which accounts for 20 percent of the district's operating budget, failed to reach the 60 percent supermajority necessary for passage during a February election.

According to the district, levy funds pay for all athletics and extra-curricular activities, half of the transportation budget, all of the technology budget and additional teacher funding to lower class sizes.

The proposed levy would authorize collection of up to $16 million in 2007, $18 million in 2008, $22.25 million in 2009 and $22.8 million in 2010.

According to the proposition, the approximate levy rate for next year would be about $2.85 per $1,000 of assessed home value, dropping approximately 4 cents in each of the following three years.

According to the Pierce County Assessor's Office, the current average home in Bonney Lake is $221,029, making the average school levy payment $631 per year.

The current levy is $3.13 per $1,000 of assessed property value, providing $11.4 million of the district's $65 million budget.

Should the levy fail for a second time, the district would lose 20 percent of its funding. Though Sumner has not released a detailed look at the programs that would be cut, Superintendent Donald Eismann said the cuts would effect all areas of the district, including in the classroom.

“Trying to whack that much out of the budget without directly impacting what happens in the classroom is impossible,” he said.

Proponents of the levy say the money is vital to keep the high quality of education provided by the Sumner School District, statements that are backed up by recent analysis by Standard and Poor's. The study looks at all school districts in the state, weighing them on a variety of factors including test scores, enrollment, expenditures and geographic and demographic data to try and measure student achievement per dollar.

The Return on Spending Index and the Performance Cost Index both score the district very high both in the state and compared to other local districts.

“By all indicators I'm feeling very positive about the fact that I think our taxpayers are getting a very, very good return on their education dollar,” Eismann said of the study.

The district and all its schools also meet the Adequate Yearly Progress Goals, as measured by the No Child Left Behind act.

The scores, combined with the high number of National Board Certified Teachers employed in the district, prompted State Superintendent of Public Schools Terry Bergeson to credit the district with delivering “a private school education at a public school price.”

Eismann estimated that without levy funding, per-student spending would drop by approximately $1,200.

“If that were the case, our core student spending would be among the lowest in the state,” he said.

The district also said though it is difficult to predict exactly where money would be cut, “class sizes will increase.”

“Without levy dollars, class size could range from 30 to 36 students,” District Communications Director Ann Cook said.

Opponents of the levy point to an overall increase in taxes, which are the result of increased home values. This year in Bonney Lake, the values of homes has gone up more than 20 percent and to Brian Bernecker, who wrote the statement against the levy in the Pierce County Voters' Pamphlet, though the levy rate drops, he sees the total amount of money going to schools increasing at a rate higher than salaries.

“The actual dollars I will be paying is over 10 percent more,” he said.

“They're going to get a lower levy rate, but more dollars,” he said. “What they're asking for is not the rate of inflation.”

Bernecker points to the 12.5 percent increase in levy dollars collected each year, calling the district's request a “radical increase.”

“The people aren't getting a 12.5 percent (raise) each year,” he said. “We're not saying 20 percent should go away, we're saying ask for a reasonable increase.”

Cook disputed Bernecker's numbers and said the overall budget raises only 3 percent each year and said the levy dollars remain a function of that budget. She also noted that voters approved a $14 million levy for 2006, though the district collected only $11.4 million from taxpayers.

“As we frequently and often do, we don't collect the full amount,” she said.

The levy rate is also lower than any other district on the ballot. Neighboring White River is asking voters for a levy rate of $3.49 per $1,000 assessed home value.

Cook also disputed the numbers provided by Bernecker in the Voters' Pamphlet. In the pamphlet, Bernecker states the average homeowner pays $4,200 in taxes with $2,500 going to schools.

However, using the assessor's numbers, the total tax bill in Bonney Lake is $13.38 per $1,000 of assessed home value with an average payment of $2,956, approximately $1,150 of which goes to schools.

School taxes account for 39 percent of taxes collected. So even on a $4,200 tax bill, the amount going to schools would be $1,680, not $2,500.

To opponents like Bernecker, however, the increase is still too much. He called the district “arrogant” for asking for the same amount voters turned down in February and said there is still excess waste in the budget.

“They had the opportunity Š to lower the amount they were asking for,” he said. “I'm interested what (they're) taking out of my pocket.”

If the levy fails for the second time, the district will not be able to put it before the voters until next year. Officials estimate a $6 million loss of revenue in the first year and additional funds the next year.

Ballots in the all mail-in election are due April 25. A 60 percent supermajority is necessary for passage.

Brian Beckley can be reached at bbeckley@courierherald.com.

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