Opinion

Levy approval critical to renew current levels | Guest Column: Patty Fielding | Jan. 15

Thanks to well over 60 percent of Bainbridge voters, a critically needed capital bond was approved in November. But that money, by law, can only be spent on the capital projects specified in the bond... a new Wilkes school and district-wide facility renovations and upgrades.

No bond money can be used for district daily operations or expenses, no matter how great the need.

A voter approved levy is the only mechanism available for districts to fill the gap between state and federal funding and the actual costs of K-12 education.

With ongoing state budget cuts, this gap gets wider every year. So, ballots arrive in island mailboxes next week asking voters to renew the Bainbridge Island School District Program and Operat-ions levy that expires this year.

The Feb. 9 levy is not a new tax and school taxes will remain stable if approved.

As a continuation of what homeowners have been paying from the last levy and other levies past, this money is strictly for school operations. The district has never operated without these funds.

Levy renewals are put on the ballot by Washington school districts at three- or four-year intervals as part of basic education funding.

Many other state school districts are asking voter approval this February; many are on the ballot with capital bonds and other initiatives such as technology or transportation levies.

Of importance, a school district levy cannot be longer than four years and the amount requested is limited by the state.

Yet, voter-approved levies for other municipal taxing districts in Washington can extend well beyond four years – from 10 to unlimited years. This disparity means schools must get voter approval for basic funding of core education every four years to continue existing programs and staffing.

In Washington, local levy dollars remain local. State dollars go into a state pot to be reallocated to school districts throughout the state based on many different, complex formulas.

This means that what is collected locally is not what the district gets back from the state. Federal education dollars are also distributed through formulas, but they generally target economically disadvantaged districts and special programs and are restricted to those uses.

Local levies are the only school tax funding for operations that go straight to the respective local districts, allowing community members to get back directly what is put in with tax dollars. But without voter approval, that levy portion of basic school funding is simply not available.

Both state and federal formulas work to the disadvantage of Bainbridge Island to the degree that we now rank 232 among 295 districts in per pupil funding – in the bottom 25 percent.

Clearly, we don’t get back enough of what is paid in state and federal assessed taxes to keep up with other districts and to provide for core education programs here. So, for Bainbridge Island, local levy dollars are critical to maintaining current staff and programs, accounting for 21 percent of our operational budget.

In the past two years, the economic crisis has required Bainbridge to cut $3.6 million dollars (10 percent) from our operations budget and further cuts will be necessary in the coming year.

Imagine what would happen to our schools if another 21 percent had to be cut: a loss of 80 staff positions affecting every school; no new or replacement textbooks; drastic reduction in classroom materials; more loss of professional development for teachers.

We are so very grateful to our community for past and continued generosity through support of voter initiatives like the bond, past levies, individual and group direct contributions, and through the many volunteer hours given at the various local schools and school-based activities.

Please help us now to continue with the excellent teachers and classroom support that have defined this district as one of the best in the state. There has never been a more important time to renew the program and operations levy.

Patty Fielding is president of the Bainbridge Island School District board of directors.

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