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Waiting on the levy

"Yes or no?That's what members of the Citizens for Better Schools Committee want to know from the Oak Harbor School Board. Will the board ask voters to approve a new school levy proposal early next year, or won't they?We really feel we need four months to run an effective levy campaign, committee member Kathy Chalfant told the board Monday night. That means the board will have to make a decision by mid-October if they hope to place a levy on a March ballot.Chalfant said the committee, which represents proponents of a local levy, doesn't need the board to work out all the details in order to get started.What we need to know is will there be a levy of some sort? she said.Though the board appears ready to go forward with some sort of levy request, there is uncertainty within the ranks about how big the request should be, when to ask for it and how to balance it with future financial needs the district may soon have to ask taxpayers to fill.Much of the board's reluctance comes from experience. Taxpayers within the Oak Harbor district have been a tough audience when it comes to local school support. Other than approving a major remodeling bond in 1996 and one small math textbook levy, Oak Harbor-area voters have rejected every maintenance and operations levy proposed in the last 32 years. Last May, despite a well-organized and highly-visible campaign by the then newly formed Citizens for Better Schools Committee, just a little more than half of local voters supported the district's $2.6 million maintenance and operations levy. The effort fell way short of the 60 percent supermajority needed for passage.That levy, which asked for an extra $1.47 per $1,000 in property tax support, would have extended the elementary school day, reduced class size, expanded summer school opportunities, provided more technology and started a hot lunch program. Now, all those items are back on the table to see what, if anything, can be trimmed in order to get more yes votes.I think $1.47 is way too high. I don't know what isn't way too high, said school board member Jim Slowik Monday night. I think if we lower the levy request significantly we stand a good chance of passing a levy. You're doing your students a service if you can win. As a place to start, Slowik said he'd like to see what the district could do with something like an $0.80 per $1,000 levy.But other board members said a levy should be driven by need rather than an arbitrary figure the board thinks it can get. They noted that no voters were the minority in the last election and that the emphasis should be placed on getting a larger number of yes voters to the polls instead of on converting nays to yeas.Following last May's vote, committee members expressed disappointment in the low turnout of parents with kids in Oak Harbor schools as well as in the number of school district employees who failed to cast a ballot.Chalfant said she's confident the committee can get more people to the polls if they have time to campaign.Complicating the board's decision this time around is that board members must also consider the potential effect state ballot Initiative 728 might have on local school funding if it passes in November. The initiative proposes funneling lottery revenue, existing property taxes and state budget reserves into reducing class size, broadening programs, increasing teacher training and building educational facilities. If approved, I-728 could give the Oak Harbor district about $800,000 in extra revenue starting with the 2001-'02 school year. That means the district wouldn't need as much in local levy money to meet its needs.At the same time, the board is also having to look at at least three other district needs not currently covered by any levy request - the upcoming 30-year remodeling of the high school; construction of a new central kitchen and weight and conditioning room; and the replacement of the aging Memorial Stadium. Such items will also likely require taxpayer support in coming years through facility construction bonds.Adding yet another view of the levy picture was former school board member Scott Hornung, who told the board Monday that rather than asking local taxpayers for more money, the board should seriously consider suing the State of Washington for not providing adequate funding for basic education.Hornung suggested that local taxpayers should only be asked to support things such as extra-curricular activities and gifted programs rather than direct classroom education, which he insisted the state is legally bound to provide. He proposed a $0.50 per $1,000 levy to cover such activities.But board member Kathy Jones questioned the logic of asking voters to back extra-curricular programs while local education needs remain unmet. Board president John Dyer asked Hornung if he was seriously suggesting the board wager the district's limited funds on a lawsuit against the state instead of trying to pass a local levy like the vast majority of districts throughout the state do on a regular basis.Board member Vicki Harring proposed that the board reach some conclusion about a levy following a special board/community workshop being held Oct. 10 in the Oak Harbor Elementary School gymnasium.I think we need to make a decision in order to give the Citizens for Better Schools Committee a timeline, Harring said. -----------------Have a sayHow big should a new local levy for the Oak Harbor School District be? How should the district pay for remodeling of the high school? Should Memorial Stadium be replaced? And when should it all happen? If you have an opinion, or even just an interest, you are invited to attend a special workshop and public meeting of the Oak Harbor School Board Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 6:30 p.m. in the Oak Harbor Elementary School gymnasium. "

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