Levy equalization may be axed

As Mid-Columbia school leaders ramp up their campaigns to pass district maintenance and operations levies in February, they're also worried about losing the state money they count on getting when those measures pass.

The state money, known as levy equalization, is meant to create balance between "property poor" and often rural districts and those that are more affluent -- and it could be on the chopping block this legislative session.

If it's cut, Mid-Columbia districts will lose millions of dollars in state funding as school officials say equalization money makes up about 5 percent of their budgets.

"As our school systems (work on) putting out levies, the overarching statement is that more than ever levies are going to be critical," said Superintendent Bruce Hawkins of Educational Service District 123 in Pasco, which serves several school districts in Southeastern Washington including those in the Tri-Cities.

Most districts in Washington rely on voter-approved levies to bridge the gap between what it costs to run their schools and the amount of state funding they receive.

The property tax revenue that's generated by levies helps pay for daily operating costs such as security and library staff, music and sports programs, utilities and textbooks. Levies plus equalization funding make up about 20 percent of districts' budgets.

Nearly every school district in the Mid-Columbia is running a two-year levy in February.

Most qualify for levy equalization. The funding is intended to help districts make up for low property valuations, because districts that are more "property rich" with higher property values can run their levies at lower rates and still collect enough to pay the bills.

Hawkins' agency did an analysis and estimated that Mid-Columbia districts would lose $27.6 million next school year if levy equalization was cut.

Pasco schools would be among the hardest hit and would lose an estimated $8 million alone, according to officials from that district.

"That would have a huge impact on Pasco," Pasco Superintendent Saundra Hill told the Herald editorial board Friday.

Kennewick, Richland, Finley, Columbia-Burbank, North Franklin, Kiona-Benton City and Prosser schools also would lose a substantial amount.

Area school officials are especially concerned about what they see as the unfairness of a levy equalization cut, which they say would disproportionately hurt poorer districts, including many in Eastern Washington.

"Quality education should be a right of every citizen in the state. It shouldn't be limited because of low property values," said Randy Rutledge, a community organizer in Benton City and member of the citizens' committee working to pass that school district's levy.

He's working to organize a letter-writing campaign against cutting levy equalization.

It's already been a difficult year for schools financially. The state Legislature, faced with a multi-billion dollar shortfall, made deep cuts to K-12 education and other programs in the last session. As a result, school districts trimmed their budgets through steps such as eliminating staff positions and cutting back on travel and other costs.

Levy equalization was included among the proposed cuts in Gov. Chris Gregoire's draft budget for the rest of the biennium that was released in December.

Gregoire was required to present a balanced budget with no new revenues -- such as taxes -- and she said the result was a plan that was "unjust" and not aligned with her values.

She said she'll release another budget this month that'll raise revenues and preserve levy equalization.

The state House of Representatives and Senate also have to create their own budget plans. The 2010 legislative session starts Monday.

Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, said he values levy equalization and is committed to keeping it. Cuts will have to be made during the session, but doing as much as possible to preserve education funding is critical, he said.

"You don't recover from the kind of cuts that are being proposed in education at least in a generation or two," he said.