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Sunnyside School Board informed effort underway to retain levy equalization funds

Curtis Campbell is speaking out, only this time he's doing it as a concerned citizen, Sunnyside School Board members learned at last night's meeting, Tuesday.

As a citizen, the Sunnyside School District Community Relations Coordinator is helping to reconvene the 'Yes Committee,' a local group comprised of concerned citizens aiming to make a difference in Olympia.

"Legislators are talking about cutting levy equalization funding and it's just a real concern to me," Campbell said after the meeting.

"These are real people and these are real services to kids. It would be devastating not just to the school, but to the community, (eastern Washington) communities in need, school districts in need."

Campbell said a city on the west side of the mountains can run a levy asking for $1.26 per $1,000 of assessed value of a home and get $3,000 per student. If the same bond were approved by voters here, this district would get $300 per student.

Superintendent Rick Cole explained prior to the Tuesday night meeting levy equalization dollars were created to fill the gap in property taxes between the west and east sides of the state.

"Levy equalization is one of the only ways the state is able to keep educational funding equitable," he explained. "When you have school districts on the west side of the state with higher property values receiving exponentially more money per student when they run a levy for the same tax rate, you need some sort of funding mechanism to keep it equitable.

"That's exactly what the intent of levy equalization has been, to equalize the funding between the property-rich and the property-poor school districts.

"If you take that away, I really don't know how anyone could claim that educational funding is equitable across the state."

Campell said, "If they were to cut that, it would disproportionately affect our kids. Not kids on the other side of the state, our kids."

Sunnyside School Board Director Rocky Simmons also wears a second hat: he is a legislative representative with the Washington State School Directors Association and relays needs of school districts to lawmakers.

Simmons told fellow directors and those present at the meeting last night that the common belief is that levy equalization funds are likely going to be chopped.

He explained some funding items in the state budget are protected items and some things are not, including levy equalization funds.

In the state budget, $250 million in non-protected dollars is budgeted for levy equalization.

In the past 10 years, from 2001 to 2010, Sunnyside will have received $39.2 million in levy equalization funds.

Angela Watts, the Sunnyside School District Executive of Business and Operations, said the district will receive roughly $5.5 million in levy equalization funding because voters approved last spring's bond. Payments are disbursed monthly from October to August.

Watts broke down how levy equalization dollars are spent in Sunnyside: roughly $2 million gives the general fund excess dollars which is used for bond debt, there are smaller capital projects, like re-roofing and re-carpeting, new busses are purchased, $700,000 goes to the athletic program, about $700,000 goes to building budgets for general supplies for teachers and staff, $100,000 is spent on curriculum and roughly $100,000 is applied toward utility bills the state doesn't fully fund.

Watts noted another concern. "The state funds us through June 30, 2010. The district's fiscal year end is Aug. 31, 2010. We're expecting legislators to make cuts, affecting our current budget (July and August)...not our state allocation, but some areas like I-728, a portion of levy equalization and small state grants."

Campbell said the intent of the Yes Committee will be to sway lawmakers to defend and protect levy equalization funds. A meeting is slated for Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. at the SVID boardroom and Campbell is hopeful other community members will speak out as well.

"I don't think our legislators should be balancing the budget on the backs of property poor districts," Campbell said.

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