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Letter to the Editor: Ferndale School District faces challenges beyond the current bond proposal

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So, the Ferndale School District Bond discussion is in full swing here. It should be, it is important. But there is something just as important as the bond that I believe the community should be monitoring as well.

Please consider the following situations and let’s elevate the discussion about what kind of schools Ferndale deserves:

1) We still have a school board that is tasked with the financial responsibility for the district. As has been pointed out in recent posts, past bonds failed because many in the community believe the board has not done a great job with financial management.

Lately, an acquaintance of mine serving on the Educational Services District 189 – the ESD that serves Ferndale School District, obtained analysis from the State concerning district budgeting. The caption for the analysis states,

“In the attached report there are many districts that have not yet negotiated their teacher wages for the upcoming school years and yet are heading toward deficit spending. It is noteworthy to see that Ferndale, Lynden, Blaine, Meridian, and Mt Baker predict deficits in the coming years. All of these districts were going to have to reduce their local levy to $1.50 per thousand. Now maybe not.”

That report demonstrates that Ferndale, over the next three years, is projected to have deficits of $1.5 million, $10.19 millions, and $17.25 million. What is interesting, as the caption points out, is that these figures are PRIOR to negotiating teacher and support staff contracts.

This information is to foster discussion about a subject now being debated in the legislature. This subject is the limitations on levies following the legislature’s funding pursuant to the McCleary ruling.

The legislature, for those of us who pay property taxes directly and noticed the steep increases in our property taxes this past year, promised landowners that beginning this year, property taxes would be reduced via a “levy lid.” This “lid” was, in essence, limited levies to $1.50/$1,000 of property value. This “levy lid” is the reason why Ferndale is projected to be operating at a deficit. Now, the legislature is considering removing that lid meaning properties will continued to be taxed a current levels.

What will also come into play for district funding? A proposed capital gains tax when you sell your property. While the initial proposal excludes residential property, some legislators have already stated that this is to “sell” the proposal; that exclusion will likely disappear in the future. Moreover, there is a proposal to increase the Business and Occupation tax on services (a tax on the GROSS income of a business, not the net – huge distinction with large ramifications for businesses). While Ferndale does not charge B&O, the state does and the proposal for service providers as in increase from 1.5% to 2.6%.

So the questions are:

  • Is the Ferndale School District supporting the legislature abolishing the “levy lid” and allowing them to pursue additional levies in contradiction to the promises made to us by our legislature?
  • What steps are the District taking to ensure that if the “levy lid” remains in place, that deficits will not materialize in the next couple years?

Several years ago, the District had amassed a significant operating budget surplus thanks to the work of Mark Deebach; the board then promptly awarded that surplus to the union after brief negotiations and an illegal strike by teachers. Are we to expect similar negotiations placing the district’s budget in jeopardy in the near future?

Only time will tell, but it is my hope that the community maintains its engagement and pushes for greater financial responsibility.

2) I don’t know how many people in Ferndale watch regulatory matters, but the recent difficulties encountered by the Main Street Bar demonstrate what can happen to local institutions when the citizens fail to appreciate the ramifications of local regulatory pursuits. Right now, there are devastating proposed ordinances being advanced to the Whatcom County Planning Commission seeking to hamper the future operations of Cherry Point industries. Regardless of what you may believe about fossil fuels and aluminum smelting, you will have a care about the impact these ordinances will have on those industries and the resulting harm to the Ferndale School District.

In a 2017 study commissioned by the Whatcom Business Alliance and performed by the Western Washington University Economics department, Cherry Point industries alone contributed nearly $2.6million to the Ferndale School District annually. That number increases when one considers the almost 200 ancillary businesses locally that support Cherry Point operations.

The Whatcom County Council takes a final vote on moving these ordinances forward on Tuesday, January 29, 2019. I can assure you that these regulatory efforts are having a negative impact on these industries’ future operations. While other states attempt to lure these businesses, we seem to be rushing to push them out. And Ferndale will certainly be on the losing end.

What are we as a community going to do to ensure the future of our Cherry Point industries and the taxes they bring to our district? For those who don’t support the smelter and refinery operations, what are you doing to ensure that we are bringing new industry to our area to shore up Cherry Point operations and the continued financial health of our school district as a result? Is our district preparing the youth for the new jobs that might be available in our area ensuring that our youth will be able to continue living here and raising their families? Will our new schools have the resources to allow youth to pursue that education?

3) I know there is an effort to focus on the maintenance of our district facilities. In prior bond issues, there were many questions about maintenance and precious few answers. Those of us who attended all the tours, attended the meetings, and talked to the engineers and professional were profoundly disappointed in the answers. I remember being told that the problems in the historic North Bellingham building were the direct result (most likely) of a neglect of gutters (water built up under the roof, froze, and moved the roof structure off the walls). The building, we were assured, was in imminent danger of collapse, though it remains standing today nearly 10 years later.

I also remember sitting in the auditorium of Eagleridge Middle School for a meeting. The school, at the time, was about 10 years old. We were informed at that meeting that the school had already deteriorated to approximately 70% (North Bell was around 50% as I recall) because of deferred maintenance. WHY? We never found the answer.

One of the issues that arose was that the District is paying journeyman wages for people performing general maintenance. Now, I don’t begrudge anyone being paid a fair wage for the work they do, but when we are looking to ensure maintenance is being completed and that our facilities are maintained to ensure future operations, are we negotiating contracts that are reflective of the fair market value for the work being done, i.e., are we paying journeyman wages for lawn mowing, gutter cleaning, etc.? I don’t know the answer to this question despite it being asked numerous times, but I suspect that there is a better way to ensure that maintenance is being done, timely, so that our facilities are not deteriorating faster than necessary. I look forward to learning the answer.

This is not to say that I’m not voting for the bond. Remember, bonds are for buildings; levies are for learning. It is clear that we need a new high school and that security upgrades are long overdue. I am also encouraged that there is a bond oversight committee to provide some accountability to the school board.

But the bond discussion is now and will soon be at an end. Then we will begin having the same discussion about the future of that building and maintenance? How is our community working to ensure the long-term financial health of our district considering the current levy and taxing issues facing our community? We simply cannot afford to lose the momentum built during this last bond issue and not continue working with the board and administration to provide our community with the educational facilities and opportunities we all want for our youth!

I look forward to our discussions in the future. I don’t profess to have the answers, but I am aware of the issues. Working together, I believe we can have the local educational service we deserve and that will best serve the kids and our community!

Perry Eskridge

Letters to the Editor submitted to My Ferndale News are the opinions of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the publisher of My Ferndale News.

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