Hockinson schools seek increased levy to maintain operations

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Voters in the Hockinson School District will have the chance to weigh in on replacing the district’s local levy on Feb. 8, which if rejected, could prove “catastrophic” for its finances, the district superintendent said.

On Nov. 29, the school district’s board of directors voted to put a replacement for the expiring educational programs and operations levy on the February special election ballot. If approved, the levy rate is estimated to be $1.89 per $1,000 of assessed value, or about 39 cents higher than the current levy of $1.50 per $1,000. If it is approved, the levy would collect $4.075 million in 2023, $4.3 million in 2024, $4.525 million in 2025 and $4.775 million in 2026.

The levy accounts for about 10.6% of the district’s budget, Superintendent Steve Marshall said. The levy funds a wide range of aspects of the district. Marshall mentioned art, music, sports, clubs and special education, among other items.

“It funds the programs that really … give a lot of relevance and meaning and memories to our students,” Marshall said.

Marshall said the district serves as a focal point for the Hockinson community, which is an unincorporated part of Clark County without a city in its jurisdiction like nearby districts. The programs funded by the levy help to define Hockinson, he said.

“They’re really important to our community identity,” Marshall said.

The district last ran a levy in April 2019 which passed by about 52.3% or 155 votes. The levy was set at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value because of a cap on local levies due to school funding changes brought on by the McCleary court decision. Prior to that, the district had a levy of $3.42 per $1,000 assessed value.

Subsequent to the 2019 levy passing, the Legislature adjusted the maximum levy to $2.50 per $1,000. Marshall said the school board decided to maintain its $1.50 per $1,000 rate at that time. House valuations also impacted the levy. If the board decided to adjust the rate to reflect those changes the district could have collected about $650,000 more in a three-year period.

Though he acknowledged the current levy has helped the district, HSD Board President Patrick Carter said the district has had to make cuts to staff and programs to balance the budget. Marshall said prior cuts included a district librarian, a school resource officer, a high school career counselor, instructional coaches and a groundskeeper. The district also reduced hours for a number of formally full-time positions.

“Those have been difficult reductions,” Marshall said.

The district has been “pretty efficient” with its staffing, he added.

Even with the efficiency, the district is still operating at a deficit as it has dipped into reserve funds. Hockinson had a deficit of about $474,000 for the 2021-2022 school year, according to budget documents.

Compounding the financial issues, as is the case in districts statewide, has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the district did receive Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, Hockinson’s population kept the district from receiving as much as nearby districts. Marshall said those funds were tied to the proportion of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Because Hockinson has a lower rate of those students relative to other districts nearby, it didn’t receive as much funding. Information from the district showed Hockinson only received $495 in ESSER funds per student compared to $1,696 per student in Battle Ground.

“That funding formula kind of exacerbates our already challenging position as a fringe rural district,” Marshall said.

The district receives some reprieve from the state with levy equalization funding. That source comes from the “property-poor” nature of Hockinson, district information stated, due to a lack of industry with high assessed values. The current equalization is about $475,000 annually on the existing levy.

If the levy is approved, the district wouldn’t immediately be able to bring back the cut positions, but it would be a start.

“It will put us in a better position to begin to strategically restore those positions,” Marshall said. He said there are still “a lot of questions” about state-level school funding including enrollment-based stabilization funding and potential assistance for rural districts.

“This levy is going to put us in a position to start to look at restoring some of those positions — not all, but we would start on that road,” Marshall said.

Carter said if the levy isn’t successful, “there’s no way those positions will come back.” He added additional cost-cutting measures are likely in that scenario. Marshall said those impacts could be dire.

“Not passing this levy would be catastrophic for our district, and ultimately, for the students of Hockinson schools,” Marshall said.

Carter said the levy proposal in front of voters is the district’s “best attempt at being fiscally responsible with our community.”

“There’s not a lot extra in the ask with this levy rate. It’s really just maintaining what we have,” Carter said.

Marshall said the levy rate was decided on by finding a balance between funding operations and not burdening taxpayers.

“What we tried to do … is find that level where we could maintain programming for our students and at the same time try to minimize the impact on our families and community,” Marshall said.

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