Benton County schools eye budget cuts following levy failures

(The Center Square) – Two school districts in Benton County, Washington, are looking at budget cuts after voters twice refused to renew operational levies that expire at the end of the year.

Administrators at Kennewick and Finley school districts are crunching numbers to offset the loss not only of local tax dollars, but the accompanying state match.

Meanwhile, administrators are breathing a sigh of relief in Prosser, where the levy passed by a 51.2% margin. Although it looked on election night, April 26, like the measure would fail, a subsequent count of ballots delivered the numbers needed for passage.

Prosser asked voters to approve a two-year levy rate of $2.13 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The district expects to collect $3.78 million next year and $3.89 million in 2023.

After 51% of Kennewick district voters rejected the second levy, Superintendent Traci Pierce told the school board that $5 million to $6 million will need to be cut from the next budget.  Although no layoffs are planned at this time, at least 20 vacant positions will not be filled due to the loss of about 11% of the budget.

Kennewick, like Finley and Prosser, asked voters in February to pass replacement levies, all of which were turned down. The districts then came back with other proposals for a lesser amount of money.

On the second round, Kennewick asked property owners to pay $1.75 per $1,000 of assessed value the first year, and $1.85 per $1,000 of assessed value the second year.

With the levy’s defeat, Kennewick will also lose $34 million in state and local matching funding over the next two school years, said Pierce.

There are about 18,800 students in the Kennewick school district.

“We’re not in a place tonight where we need to make drastic and detrimental cuts that would impact our students and impact our schools. We are, though, in a place where we need to make some budget reductions because there is a reality here,” Pierce told the school board at its May 11 meeting.

State law only allows public schools to go before voters with levy proposals twice in a year, so Kennewick and Finley will have to wait to go back to voters again.

Kennewick is expected to make a third attempt at gaining voter support next year. If that measure is approved, the district could begin collecting money again in 2024.

Meanwhile, Pierce said administrators are looking at programs, such as special education services and transportation, that may be impacted. School officials are also reviewing participation in sports program and where cuts could be made.

Pierce told the school board that if voters reject funding for the third time, the district could be looking at reductions up to $25 million that will bring deep cuts in staffing, sports and other programs starting in the 2023-24 academic year.

Another budget presentation factoring in the reality of the levy failure will be made at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

The Finley School District serves about 880 students. Officials say American Rescue Plan funds and state enrollment stabilization money will backfill its next budget after the levy failure.

Like Kennewick, administrators in Finley will be looking at way to reduce overhead. Voters rejected the two-year operational levy by 52.5%, a loss of about $1.48 million in 2023 and $1.54 million the following year.

According to district reports, the local levy and matching funds make up about 12% of the total $13.9 million budget. Officials plan a workshop session to carve out details of a budget reduction plan to offset the loss of revenue.

Finley had asked voters to approve a tax of $2.33 for every $1,000 of assessed value the first year and $2.37 per $1,000 the second year.