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Officials pitch plan for 50 percent levy elections

TULALIP Education leaders made a pitch to the local business community to support a state-wide initiative on Novembers ballot that would make it easier for school districts to pass levies for additional operating monies.
The Washington state constitution currently requires a 60 percent supermajority that many educators say is both unique and unfair by singling out school districts when other agencies such as fire districts only have to meet a simple majority of 50 percent of the vote, plus one vote.
The statewide ballot measure known as EHJR 4204 would remove a series of three constitutional amendments made by voters in 1932, 1936 and 1944 that created several higher hurdles for funding mechanisms that use local property taxes to augment state education funding. Those voter-sponsored initiatives created the 60 percent requirement as well as a 40 percent minimum voter turnout for an election to be valid. Opponents have been trying to remove those hurdles for 63 years and 2007 will be the first time the proposed amendment will be put before voters. A constitutional amendment, it also had to pass both houses of the legislature by two-thirds majorities before it appeared on the ballot.
The times have changed, the conditions have changed, said Barbara Mertens, who works for the Washington Association of School Administrators. We are absolutely convinced the simple majority amendment will pass this November.
The series of changes made more than 60 years ago were a reaction to the tough times of the Great Depression and the fears of a much narrower class of property owners that existed at that time, Mertens said. Many land owners at that time feared voters at the ballots would raise taxes precipitously and so lobbied for the higher standards. There was also fears that a small turnout could decide the matter; this years amendment would also eliminate a 40 percent turnout requirement. Nowadays a much broader swath of citizens own their homes, and the new institution of mail-in ballots make the turnout hurdle obsolete, Mertens added.
She spoke before the Greater Marysville Tulalip Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 24 along with Marysville School District superintendent Larry Nyland. The chamber has endorsed the proposed amendment and no members spoke against the measure, which would only apply to operating levies. School construction bonds also must garner a supermajority, but the proposed amendment wouldnt effect them.
Mertens said bonds were excluded from the amendment initiative because of the pragmatic requirement to get the two-thirds support from legislators in both the state house and senate. Also, bonds are long-term debt with terms of 20 and 30 years, whereas levies are additional taxes for terms of three and four years, and must be renewed by voters. Also, other construction funding measures for other types of agencies in the state must get a supermajority, so there was no disparity versus school districts and fire district, for example.
One important effect the amendment will have if passed is creating a stable funding environment. Operating levies comprise an average of about 17 percent of school budgets and the largest chunk of that goes to additional pay for school teachers, and to a smaller degree support staff such as teachers aides and maintenance personnel. By state law teachers have to be informed by May whether they will have a job at the start of the next school year and when a levy fails administrators have to prepare for the worst. School districts can go back to the voters multiple times until a levy passes, as Marysville had to do for more than a decade. When voters approved a $72 million, four-year levy by only 23 votes last February it was the first time in 15 years a levy passed on the first try.
That was a huge change from the usual fire drill when finance officers perform a payroll triage where they identify the staffers that will get pink slips. The planning for a worst-case scenario is a huge disruption for a district where 85 percent of the budget is spent on people, Nyland added.
And thats when a levy eventually passes. During the Boeing bust Marysville lost a levy for three or four years and Nyland said it took a long time to rebuild from the losses.
Of the 225 levies on ballots last year 33 percent passed on the first attempt, according to Mertens, and 29 districts ran second elections. Four of those lost a second time, resulting in drastic cuts.
Ken Cage of the Marysville Historical Society asked the speaker about a potential Catch-22: if the lower simple majority passes, could the state legislature duck the state education funding issue now that local voters can reach into their wallets more easily?
I think thats a legitimate fear, Mertens nodded.
Nyland agreed, saying Washington charts nationally at 42nd in school funding among the 50 United States.
Were not over-funding education, he said.
The chamber is leaning toward officially endorsing the proposed amendment, and new board chairman David Toyer was swinging for it, saying school levies are one of the few funding measures requiring the larger 60 percent majority.
Its really a fairness issue, he told the small crowd at the Tulalip Casino Canoes Cabaret.
The next meeting has a big draw: former Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi will appear at the Sept. 28 meeting to discuss what businesses should expect from their elected leaders. The GOP leader is expected to challenge Gov. Christine Gregoire in a rematch of their contested 2004 election. The Oct. 19 meeting will have attorney Vickie Norris speaking about employment law.
For more information call the Greater Marysville Tulalip Chamber of Commerce at 360-659-7700 or see their website at www.marysvilletulalipchamber.com.

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