School district levy placed on February ballot

Candidates for local offices are looking to wind down campaigns after Tuesday’s Nov. 6 General Election, but supporters of a Federal Way Public Schools levy are just getting started.

The district’s maintenance and operations levy for 2003-04 hits the ballot on Feb. 5. The current levy expires at the end of 2002.

Levy money is placed in the district’s general fund and pays for everything from teachers to transportation.

“Our biggest concern is supporting teachers,” said Teri Hickel of Citizens for Federal Way Schools.

She also said a passing levy would enable the district to continue its focus on improving literacy and closing achievement gaps.

“Of course you want a literate community,” Hickel said. “It helps everybody.”

Superintendent Tom Murphy called the levy proposal “reasonable,” saying some factions in the community wanted the district to ask for more money, and some less.

The current levy has a rate of $2.97 per $1,000 of assessed property value and expires at the end of 2002. For the owner of a $175,000 home, that’s $519.75 annually. For the district it’s an overall collection of about $22.8 million.

The new levy, which will be collected from 2003-04, is advertised at the same rate and would raise $24.1 million in 2003 and $25.3 million in 2004. That’s a 5 percent increase in 2003, compared to the rate of inflation, which is predicted to reach 4.4 percent in March 2002.

Murphy said the school board chose not to ask for a higher taxation rate, in part, due to uncertain economic times as well as the anti-taxation climate.

“Would we like to have another $6 million a year? You betcha,” he said, adding it would help the district further reduce class sizes and improve literacy.

“We’re looking at literacy from the standpoint of not leaving one child behind,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that asking for such a hike would have been risky, partly because the state and country are entering challenging times.

The board also chose to keep the levy rate “constant” to avoid cuts in programs, he said. For example, the levy pays for the sixth class that high school students take because the state only funds five classes per day.

It also allows the district to offer sports programs and other activities without fees and to maintain current class sizes. In 2004-05, the district will spend about $2.2 million for athletics and activities, totalling about 7 percent of the levy.

Here’s how the levy would break down:

• 37 percent, certificated staff, including 90 classroom teachers, secretaries, custodians and classroom assistants.

• 8 percent, literacy training for teachers and other staff to help them identify reading difficulties and methods to teach children.

• 8 percent, transportation.

• 7 percent, student activities, like music, debate and athletics.

• 7 percent, additional supplies and materials, like parent newsletters, cleaning supplies and books.

• 2 percent to compensate principals and administrators above the base state amount of $46,500.

The last time the district ran a levy, in 1999, it initially failed by 40 votes. It passed with 68 percent of the vote the second time the district ran it.

Despite that passage, the school district faced a budget dip in the 1999-2000 school year, and cut school building budgets by $3.1 million. The shortfall was largely due to lower-than-anticipated student enrollment numbers.

That meant schools had to hold off on buying things for classrooms such as educational software, paper, books, or new physical education equipment until the funding was reinstated.

About 95 percent of that funding was reinstated this school year, said budget director Sally McLean. The levy, if passed, would maintain that level but not enhance it.

However, Murphy could not guarantee cuts wouldn’t be needed in the future, even if the levy passes. To maintain current programs, gas and electric rates will both have to be stable or come down, and state funding will have to remain steady. Neither prospect is guaranteed.

Washington state government is facing the grim reality of mounting financial woes that could easily top the billion-dollar mark.

Gov. Gary Locke and lawmakers are looking at big spending cuts to fill the gap. Everything will be on the line, including $1.1 million in Better Schools funding for the Federal Way district, McLean said.

Better Schools funding pays for about 18 classroom teachers in kindergarten to fourth-grade programs.

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