School levy request may double

Oak Harbor school officials could ask voters next spring to consider a proposal that would nearly double the district’s levy rate.

The levy currently stands at 51 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, and officials are considering a proposal to increase the levy to approximately $1 per $1,000 assessed property value. Even that is far less than taxpayers in most other districts pay.

A final decision on what dollar amount should be sent to the voters likely won’t be made for months.

The idea for a levy rate increase came out of a series of meetings that took place in March and April. People attending the meetings included school board members, administrators, residents, teachers and one student.

Superintendent Rick Schulte said during a recent school board meeting that passing a larger maintenance and operations levy is the most current need. A larger levy would recover some of the cuts made in recent years to resolve budget deficits.

The school board earlier this month axed 22 support positions to help resolve a $2 million shortfall anticipated in the 2008-2009 school year budget. Those are positions officials would like to see returned.

“If that isn’t everyone’s No. 1 priority, then there isn’t any point in saving those jobs,” Schulte said.

If approved, the levy would bring in an estimated $4.2 million in 2010, and that amount would increase each year until reaching a high of $4.8 million in 2013.

Even with the increase, the school district would levy only half of its tax authority. Most other school districts are closer to its maximum amount they can collect. The state maintenance and operations levy average is $1.94.

“The people not sharing the pain are our local taxpayers,” Schulte said.

The voters last approved a levy for the Oak Harbor School District in 2005, and it is set to expire in 2009. Schulte said the new levy will go before voters next spring, which will be in time to incorporate the results into the district budget.

The school district also plans to use the levy to maintain current programs that were part of proposals in the 2001 and 2005 elections. Among things they fund are 20 teachers and 13,000 work hours for instructional assistants.

Peter Szalai, president of the Oak Harbor Education Association, spoke during a recent school board meeting advocating using levy dollars to increase teacher pay.

“Teacher pay should be a perpetual priority,” Szalai said. “Teachers are paid too little — period.”

He said an increase in pay is the way to attract the best possible candidates, retains current teachers and it shows the school district’s priorities.

The bar has gotten lower for school district to pass levies. Due to a voter-approved change in the state Constitution, school levies now have to pass by a 50 percent majority rather than the previous 60 percent supermajority.

The change appears to have paid off for school districts around the state.

In 2008, 146 school districts ran maintenance and operations levies. Only three failed to reach the 50 percent needed for approval. Another 45 passed but didn’t reach the 60 percent supermajority previously needed, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Schulte said the next steps are to find a leader to head up the levy committee and to start scheduling times with community groups to speak about the levy.

Whoever leads the committee will also help decide how much money to ask from voters.

“Their recommendation is key to what kind of proposal to make,” Schulte said.

He said school officials will start contacting community groups to schedule meetings with them in the fall.

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