Blaine school district looks to February special election for M&O

By Ian Ferguson

With the state legislature still failing to fully fund basic education, school districts across Washington continue to rely on local levies for a significant chunk of operational expenses, and Blaine is no exception.

In February 2016, Blaine school district will ask voters to renew a four-year maintenance and operations (M&O) levy to cover 25.3 percent of day-to-day expenses. Superintendent Ron Spanjer and director of finance and operations Amber Porter presented the details of the levy initiative to the school district’s board of directors at their regular monthly meeting October 26.

The M&O levy is nothing new. All seven school districts in Whatcom County will seek M&O levies this spring, as they typically have every four or five years for decades. What’s different this time is that the state supreme court has ordered the state legislature to provide complete funding for basic education.

If the state legislature increases state funding, local collection amounts will decrease, but until that happens school districts must plan for the status quo.

The levy currently in place expires at the end of the 2016 calendar year, with a projected total collection in 2016 of $6.5 million at a rate of $1.85 per $1,000 of assessed property value. According to Porter’s summary update, the new four-year levy is projected to collect $7 million in 2017, $7.17 million in 2018, $7.34 million in 2019 and $7.5 million in 2020. The anticipated rates are $1.98, $2.01, $2.04 and $2.06 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Part of the increase is to account for inflation, Porter said, and some is to account for the added costs of state-mandated program additions such as all-day kindergarten, increased credit-hour requirements and smaller class sizes.

Although the state supreme court has ruled that the state must fund a greater proportion of basic education, it seems as though the ratio of local-versus-state funding of schools has been going in the other direction lately, Spanjer said in an interview after the meeting.

“We do see our local obligation increasing, because we continue to get new mandates that are not fully covered,” Spanjer said.

All-day kindergarten, an increase to a 24 credit-hour graduation requirement for high schools and smaller elementary school class sizes are three of the most contentious mandates. State law requires all three, and all three bring additional expenses not covered by the state.

All-day everyday kindergarten begins next school year. It requires more classroom space, so crews are building a new wing at Blaine Primary School.

Funding for that construction didn’t come from the state – Blaine school district voters passed a $45 million construction bond measure in February 2015, and the primary school wing was part of the measure.

Although the state will fund three full-time and one half-time teacher salaries to help support full-time kindergarten, covering the additional classroom materials, teacher training, a portion of benefits and other costs is up to the school district.

“One example is we’re going to have 75–85 more kindergarten kids on buses everyday. Perhaps some won’t come to school on buses, but we run pretty full buses so we’re going to have to look at routing structures and what the implication is for transportation. We’re going to have more kids eating lunch everyday, more kids on the playground everyday; so they aren’t really hidden costs but they’re local costs and we have to take those variables into consideration,” Spanjer told board

In August, the state supreme court ruled the state’s lack of funding for basic education unconstitutional. Until the legislature passes laws to better fund basic education, the state must pay $100,000 a day in sanctions. The ruling stems from McCleary et al. v. State of Washington, filed by two families against the state in 2007.

According to court documents, the fines will be held in an account to help pay for basic education until the contempt order is lifted. Whether the fines have the intended effect remains to be seen.

“If the state steps up and takes on some of that burden, we’ll collect less, but until that happens we continue to rely on local levies,” Spanjer said.

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