A levy failure pushes Lakewood to cut spending, tap reserves

Among other cuts, the district plans to axe a school resource officer and leave vacant jobs unfilled.

LAKEWOOD — Leaders of the Lakewood School District will slash spending and dig into reserves to cope with a multimillion-dollar shortfall in its next budget, resulting from voter rejection of an enrichment levy in the primary election.

A school resource officer position will be eliminated, vacant teaching positions will not be filled and social-emotional learning programs will be scaled back as the district’s board of directors looks to pare roughly $1 million in expenses in the coming school year.

They also plan to use $3.3 million in reserves to balance the one-year budget, which takes effect Sept. 1.

They agreed on the approach in a meeting Aug. 5, the day after voters, for the second time this year, did not renew a four-year levy that has provided millions of dollars for classroom and campus operating expenses not covered by the state. Directors are to adopt the budget Aug. 26.

The first day of classes — which will be held remotely for the district’s roughly 2,300 students — is Sept. 8

Had the levy passed, it would have brought in an estimated $6.3 million from property tax collections in 2021 for staff, such as the resource officer and school nurses, as well as athletic programs, band, drama and facility and transportation maintenance. The first chunk of those dollars would have arrived in the spring.

Instead, the board is trimming spending on programs, staff, professional development, materials and supplies, and it is making a one-time draw on reserves to close the gap created by not having those dollars, said Superintendent Scott Peacock.

There isn’t an answer for what will happen farther down the road, when costs for employee salaries and health insurance will climb and allocations from the state will decline due to the funding scheme that evolved from the landmark McCleary lawsuit over state education funding.

“The impacts in the future will be severe,” said board president Jahna Smith.

Peacock said that in late fall they will begin identifying further reductions for the 2021-22 fiscal year that take into account the rest of the funding shortfall created by not having a fall 2021 levy collection.

“We expect those reductions to be deeper and more comprehensive,” he said.

In February, only 45% of voters backed renewing the levy. State law allows districts to try twice in the same year. Before returning to the ballot, district leaders and directors met with parents and community members to get a sense of why the measure didn’t succeed.

The board drew up a slimmer version for the Aug. 4 primary in recognition of the stress and strain wrought by the pandemic and economic downturn. Those headwinds, coupled with a general weariness for taxes, proved too much in this month’s election, though support did rise to 46.2%.

“We were hopeful,” said Smith, who is in her fifth year on the board. “This just reinforces … the district needs to do a better job informing our voters what we’re doing and how we’re spending their tax dollars.”

It’s been 27 years since a Snohomish County school district suffered a double levy failure. It happened to the Snohomish School District, where Peacock was in his first year of teaching. He said he’s shared his experience with those in the community.

“This is something that lingers on for much more than a year,” he said.

At some point, the Lakewood School District will try again, though exactly when is to be decided.

“I don’t think we’re committed to anything right now,” Smith said. “We still need to work with our community and engage people to hear and understand their concerns. Eventually we’ll have to try, whether it is in February or April or next fall.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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