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Tax rates and schools: setting the record straight | Guest op
By Kelly McDonald
For the Auburn Reporter
While last week's letter from from Mr. Chester Wells contained a number of facts about levy sizes and bond tax rates, it lacks critical context to accurately interpret the data points. Nor does the letter recognize the work by Auburn School District staff, awareness of Auburn's unique tax and economic issues, and long-term planning done by the district and community members to build academic success for the children of taxpayers in Auburn.
As a homeowner, I appreciate Mr. Wells focus on tax rates and the belief our homes will rise in value soon. I personally calculated a representative sample of 16 properties within the district boundaries, ranging in price from $143,000 to more than $450,000. All 16 properties showed declining values and lower taxes in 2013 over 2012 and 2011, using the most recent numbers from King County – assuming passage of the Auburn High replacement bond.
School bonds – like levies – are highly regulated and transparent financial instruments – unlike some home loan documents or credit cards individuals may sign. The district can only collect the amount of monies under the bond cap. When housing values rise, the bond's assessment rate will go down. The district cannot collect revenue beyond what voters have approved and outlined in the proposition language.
Mr. Wells' states that the average homeowners taxes remain unchanged or level because of declining home value. Nothing could be more erroneous. The claim of average taxes remaining level or flat is one I have made repeatedly in public and in print as a member of the Auburn Citizens for Schools Executive Committee.
It is true and accurate because of two factors Mr. Wells fails to mention. First, the district refinanced some school debt – like many of us have done with our home mortgages – at lower interest rates and saved Auburn taxpayers millions of dollars. Second, retiring loan debt from past construction projects makes the overall amount of debt serviced lower.
The decision to rebuild Auburn High was a decision that emerged as part of a collaborative, longterm planning process of a citizens advisory committee to the district that looked at capital planning and construction needs of the district starting in 2004. The citizens advisory committee's recommendation concerning buildings where remodel costs exceed 70 percent of replacement costs is that the district opt for new construction, given the longer-term use, value and savings to be captured for taxpayers.
The district's financial management strategy – including planned significant renovations and improvements with measures such as the capital improvements levy – shows it has been a prudent manager of facilities and capital assets.
For the record, the fire in the photo that accompanied the committee's guest op-ed was not submitted by the committee. That was a file photo the Reporter had when the building was evacuated last winter from its coverage of the event. The aging boiler was repaired but the inability of the infrastructure to work properly, which resulted in additional oil being inserted into the burner that produced the smoke is merely one symptom of many of the decaying and costly to maintain infrastructure.
The capital levy's work was planned and built out in a schedule managed by the district (a status report on all those projects is available on line on the district site). The surprise event with the boiler was that – an unplanned, costly and problematic winter repair that interrupted students' education that day and took needed operational funds from the district's budget to repair.
It should be noted that the Auburn School District was recognized in 2012 for 26 years of excellence in financial reporting for the
Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO). The award "validates the credibility of the school system's operations,
measures the integrity and technical competence of the business staff, assists in strengthening the presentations for bond issuance statements, and provides professional recognition."
In short, Auburn has been recognized for more than a quarter-century for being an excellent financial steward of tax revenues and prudent in its financial planning for the long-term health and welfare of our schools. Auburn is among only 59 school districts nationwide that have participated in the program for 25 years.
Finally, Mr. Wells makes the point that Auburn's assessed rates would be the highest of districts within King County. Again, the rate is not particularlya illuminating to the issue at hand. The overall dollar amount of levies held by districts is much more insightful. Among the 10 of the county's 20 districts with lower total levies (according to documents on file with King County), only one is larger in size than Auburn School District. The other nine districts with lower levels of levy monies in service are considerably smaller in the student population and facilities size. In fact, one of those districts has a paltry 10 percent of the student population of Auburn.
As an alum of Auburn High, an educator with 18 years teaching university students, and a concerned citizen and community volunteer, I urge you to support our students and schools and vote yes for Proposition 1: Auburn High Reconstruction and Modernization Bond.
When you have seen the school's condition, know the facts and understand the stakes for our students and community, I am confident you will join me.
Kelly M. McDonald, Ph.D., is an Auburn High School alum and treasurer of the Auburn Citizens for Schools Executive Committee.