Three school levy proposals are headed toward voters

January 7, 2014

By Neil Pierson

Voters will have the chance to approve or deny three levy proposals the Issaquah School District is placing on the Feb. 11 ballot.

The district is seeking the renewal of its existing maintenance and operations levy, which provides a large chunk of employee salaries not covered by the state.

By Greg Farrar Construction, funded by the previous bond issue, continues Jan. 3 on a classroom and library wing at Liberty High School.

By Greg Farrar
Construction, funded by the previous bond issue, continues Jan. 3 on a classroom and library wing at Liberty High School.

The district is also asking for a one-year, $1.7 million transportation levy, and a four-year, $52 million capital levy aimed at improving technology and making key repairs to facilities.

If all three levies are approved, the total tax rate for a district property owner would rise 8 cents to $4.83 per $1,000 from 2015-18. That equates to a $40 annual increase on a $500,000 home.

Bonds and levies: the differences

Jake Kuper, chief of finance and operations for the Issaquah School District, said it’s common for people to confuse bonds and levies.
“The easiest way to remember the difference is bonds are for buildings and levies are for learning,” he said.
Because the state doesn’t fund regular maintenance costs for existing schools, or construction costs for new schools, districts like Issaquah rely on voters to approve bonds. Similar to a mortgage, Kuper said, bonds are paid over a long-term period, typically 20 years. State law requires bond dollars to be spent on capital projects, like new construction or major maintenance, not classroom operations.
Levy dollars “help districts close the gap between what the state pays for education and the actual cost,” Kuper said. Issaquah’s current maintenance and operation levy pays for 21 percent of classroom costs.
Capital levies pay for technology — including hardware, software and infrastructure — and repairs to items like heating and cooling systems, roofs and security systems.
Like classroom costs, the state doesn’t fully fund transportation needs, and a levy like Issaquah’s one-year, $1.7 million proposal helps districts pay for new bus purchases, Kuper said.

The levy amounts were approved by the Issaquah School Board following an extensive review process by a committee of district parents, teachers and administrators.

Superintendent Ron Thiele said he believes the increase of 1.7 percent over existing tax rates is a good solution, although people have questioned the need for any increase. The district also kept levy items to the most practical needs, he said.

“We’re very committed to stable tax rates, so there’s kind of a competition there,” Thiele said. “You could try to go for the highest, most spectacular kinds of things. But it would definitely raise your taxes more than I was comfortable with.”

While the total tax level will remain the same, the amount of each individual levy will vary from year to year — as some go up, others go down by a corresponding amount.

The M&O levy, the largest of the three, will be between $2.35 and $2.52 per $1,000 assessed value between 2015 and 2018. Officials say it will raise between $44 million and $54 million per year, or roughly 21 percent of the district’s classroom costs.

“There’s a lot of money in there for salaries,” Thiele said. “We get our state apportionment, but state apportionment doesn’t cover the total cost of our salaries.”

While the transportation levy represents the smallest financial chunk on February’s ballot, it is also a critical piece, district officials said.

The $1.7 million measure would pay for 71 new buses, to replace outdated vehicles and help the district plan for future enrollment growth.

Kuper said the new buses are more fuel-efficient, saving between 1 and 3 miles per gallon. If the district can upgrade its entire bus fleet by 1 mile per gallon, it would mean an annual savings of about $100,000 in diesel fuel costs.

“Transportation is another expense that is not fully funded by state dollars,” Kuper said. “School bus levies allow the district to collect state funding to offset the cost of bus purchases.”

The capital levy targets a wide variety of items, including replacing aging computers, printers, Internet servers and document cameras. The levy also pays for staff training and new classes related to technology, as well as software upgrades for bus operations.

Thiele said training costs are a key piece of the puzzle that often get overlooked. Teachers are required to maintain an “online presence” with a classroom website that has course requirements and assignments available to families.

Teachers typically have to be trained outside of their regular schedule, Thiele noted.

Is the district a good steward of public money?

Issaquah has received clean audits from the state auditor’s office in each of the past 11 years. Moody’s, which tracks governmental bonds, has given Issaquah its highest bond credit rating, AAA.
An AAA rating is given to entities with the lowest credit risk. Moody’s uses what it calls a “universal” approach to risk analysis, judging all relevant risk factors with a team of credit professionals to determine what a rating should be.
Districts often refinance bonds to save money, and that savings generally translates to lower taxes, Kuper said.
Refinancing doesn’t drive a district’s credit rating, he added. Rather, a good bond rating allows a district to refinance at a lower interest rate, just as a homeowner’s credit score affects his or her ability to refinance.
The last time Issaquah schools put a measure before voters was in April 2012. A $219 million bond measure passed with 70 percent approval. The bond targeted modernization efforts at several buildings, including Liberty High School, three elementary schools, and all five of the district’s middle schools.
Several projects are ongoing, including the three-phase Liberty High modernization, and construction of new classroom space at Apollo and Issaquah Valley elementary schools.
The district has delayed past projects for various reasons, Superintendent Ron Thiele said. For example, Pacific Cascade Middle School’s conversion from a ninth-grade campus was pushed back a year, as was the $61.5 million modernization of Issaquah High School. Newcastle Elementary School wasn’t completed until 2004, a year later than projected, because of excavation issues.
Upgrades to Skyline High School’s stadium, which were given funding in 2012, have been moved back a year to summer 2014. Kuper said the district needed to delay the project because of site-development requirements. The amount of soil excavation for the stadium project required a permit from the city of Sammamish.
Additionally, Kuper said, the district will now be able to bundle each phase of the stadium expansion into one bid, which should result in a lower price tag.
Thiele said delays are an exception to the rule.
“Things come up, but overall, we’ve been real good about hitting our timelines and certainly hitting our cost projections as well,” he said.
With regard to the roughly 30 items approved for funding in April 2012, the district isn’t scheduled to complete them all for several years. Reconstruction of Sunny Hills Elementary is tabbed for late 2018, and a host of critical repairs at various schools may run through the end of 2019.
“You can’t build everything at once,” Thiele said. “For some families, it’s a slower process.”

“It’s no different than a Boeing engineer who has to learn a new piece of software,” he said. “And I can’t expect them to be trained for free.”

The district uses a levy, rather than a bond, to fund technology because it is a basic part of daily operations, Kuper said.

Thiele said administrators are constantly looking at ways to create safer buildings, but that usually goes into much finer detail than dealing with weapons or an earthquake.

Issaquah is currently working on a plan to install video cameras at all schools. Some schools are in the process of being reconfigured for enhanced safety. Administrative spaces have moved to the front of buildings, where employees can more easily monitor foot traffic, and electronic cards are replacing keys at entry points.

The levy would pay for similar modifications at other schools, along with maintaining heating and cooling systems, and installing more portable classrooms.

“You’re thinking about safety and security in all kinds of ways, not just the big, high-profile ways,” Thiele said.

 

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One Response to “Three school levy proposals are headed toward voters”

  1. The Issaquah Press: Three school levy proposals are headed toward voters » Volunteers for Issaquah Schools on January 13th, 2014 6:37 am

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