Caught in the throes of a budget shortfall, Kent School District officials are pushing ahead with a recovery plan.
The latest steps – as the district pitches two critical replacement levies in the Feb. 13 special election – involve reaching out to inquisitive parents, longtime supporters, even skeptical taxpayers with a series of community forums. Round-table discussions began last week and continued this week, making a stop at each of the district’s six middle schools.
Superintendent Calvin Watts acknowledged the school district is “not proud of where (it) is right now” but understands the necessity to follow a corrective course. The school district has recognized and projected the need to trim the 2017-18 school budget to the tune of $8 million while campaigning the importance to replace two levies that will keep schools repaired and running.
The district faced a nearly $7 million budget shortfall last summer before the school board approved a $356.7 million general revenue budget for the 2017-2018 school year, which projects the district ending the fiscal year with a $1.2 million fund balance.
Watts said the district has made progress in closing the gap but more works remains.
The shortfall, Watts maintained, was not a result of misusing district funds but a financial miscalculation of enrollments. The miscalculation led to budgeting decisions the district couldn’t support, according to a school spokesman.
Critics say the levies are a way to bail out a budget-irresponsible school district and comes at a time when property owners are being asked to give more to schools. State lawmakers agreed last year to raise the statewide property tax to help pay for about $7 billion in investments in public education over the next four years.
The state property tax rate for funding basic education varies by school district and is on $1,000 assessed value.
Even with the increased state funding for basic education, Watts said Kent gets 69 percent of its funding from the state, 11 percent from federal and other sources and the remaining 20 percent from local levies.
“Our expenditures until (20)16-17 were exceeding our revenues,” Watts told a small crowd assembled at Meridian Middle School on Jan. 25 for a community conversation on the school budget. “In other words, we were spending more than we were taking in … in terms of the number of our students who were enrolling.
“This did not happen overnight,” Watts added. “While I’m here, I hold myself responsible and accountable. … I arrived (as superintendent) in (20)15-16, and this is technically the second full budget cycle I have been a part of. … In (20)16-17 we recognized that we were moving in the wrong direction, and we made budgetary adjustments, cost-saving measures, budget efficiences, reduced staff.”
The recovery plan means the reduction of 90 full-time-equivalent staff, which began last fiscal school year and will continue through attrition, and cutting expenditures, Watts said. The recovery plan, as the superintendent explained, will involve an ongoing third-party external review of the budget process and fund balance and include frequent and open communication with the school board and public.
“Tonight is an example of visibility and accountability,” Watts said of the recovery plan. “We want you to know where we are, more importantly how we are going to improve our current state. … We’re prepared to answer your questions.
“It’s always going to be a challenge,” Watts added. “Our goal is to make sure that we are putting forth the right information, that we are building trust and instilling in the community that confidence that we are going to be better as a result.”
The budget serves as the backdrop to a special election season. The school district looks to replace two expiring levies. And since both are replacement measures, school officials said, local school tax rates would drop over the next six years if approved.
On the mail-in ballot are:
• Proposition No. 1 (Replacement of Expiring Educational Programs and Operations Levy) is for two years (2019, 2020) and would raise $94 million by imposing a levy rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value during 2019 and 2020. The expiring levy had a rate of around $2.77 per thousand.
The levy would help fund nearly 20 percent of the district’s overall budget for its more than 27,000 students and fund one in five district-wide employees.
The measure would replace the four-year levy voters approved in 2014 with 58 percent in favor. Funds will go toward day-to-day operations, including safety and security at schools, special education, transportation, music, art and athletic programs.
• Proposition No. 2 (Technology and Capital Levy) is for six years and replaces the four-year 2014 tech levy voters approved with 59 percent in favor. Funds will pay for technology improvements and district facility maintenance not covered by the 2016 bond measure approved by voters. It will allow for critical repairs not funded by the district’s 2016 bond. The levy will bring in an estimated $146 million over the six years – between 2019 and 2024 – using an annual levy rate of $0.75 per $1,000 of assessed value.
The levy would address 307 critical repair projects, make conservation improvements and allow for modernization efforts.
If both levies are approved, the school district portion of property taxes on a home valued at $350,000 would be an average of $1,135, a decrease of about $370 from 2018 for the first two years. For the remaining four years, property taxes would average $461, a decrease of about $1,043 from 2018. That decrease would be the result of the district getting more state revenue from the state property tax that funds basic education.
To learn more, visit ksdlevy.org or call the district office at 253-373-7524.
– Kent Reporter’s Steve Hunter contributed to this story.