School levy passes by large margin


Rick Sorrels

Voters approved the Peninsula School District Educational Programs and Operations Levy (EP&O) by 70 percent Feb. 9, replacing an existing maintenance and operations levy that expires later this year.

The current levy funds approximately 24 percent of the district’s operating budget at a property tax rate of $2.30 per $1,000 for homeowners. The replacement levy has an estimated tax rate of $2.19 per $1,000 of property value for 2017 and is projected to decrease through 2020, according to the district.

This is the first win for Peninsula in three years. The district lost two elections for two levies and one bond since 2013 intended to fund operations, build a new school, and refurbish some existing campuses.

The EP&O replacement levy pay for half of the facilities and maintenance costs, one-third of all certified staff (teachers and administrators), one-half of all classified staff (janitors, nurses, librarians, para-educators), and some operational expenses.

Superintendent Chuck Cuzzetto profusely thanked the voters at the Feb. 11 school board meeting, saying, “We pledge to be smart, and spend the money wisely.”

Peninsula has one of the lowest tax rates compared to other school districts, while achieving some of the highest student test scores and graduation rates in the state.

Funding for schools continues to be an issue in the Washington Legislature. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 the Legislature has failed in its "paramount duty" to fully fund schools as mandated by the state constitution. They also ruled that local levies have been improperly filling the gap.

According to Karen Andersen, the chief financial officer for Peninsula, “Our reserve fund is now only between $7 to 8 million, which is a small fraction of a single year’s $99-million budget for the district. This levy vote was critical; we were facing serious cuts we could no longer avoid.”

The court set 2018 as a deadline to fully fund all public schools in the state. They also found the Legislature in contempt for failing to meet interim deadlines and is fining the state $100,000 a day until it does so.

“The Legislature does not have a good track record in resolving the problem,” said Cuzzetto. “There is no guarantee that we will receive the full funding by the 2018 deadline.”

The new levy runs until 2020 but contains a provision for reducing the existing tax rate before then, according to the ballot explanatory statement: "In the event that a program is implemented that would increase state funding to the district, the district would, therefore, review and determine the need to roll back the levies."

According to Andersen, “There are no plans for any other levy or bond ballot measures through 2018, but the population growth in the North Gig Harbor area and deteriorating condition of certain schools continue pressure to our schools for capital improvements.”

Cuzzetto is retiring as superintendent June 30. The school board expects to select a successor before then.