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Misleading school bond ads pulled

Tue., March 3, 2009, 6:48 p.m.

A group urging a “yes” vote for two Spokane Public Schools measures is under fire for providing false information about how much taxpayers will be expected to contribute for the proposals.

Television, radio and newspaper advertisements paid for by Citizens for Spokane Schools — which operates independent of the school district — claim that voters will pay a lower tax rate than what they are currently paying upon approval of a $288 million construction bond and the renewal of a three-year maintenance and operation levy. Both are on the March 10 ballot.

But the ads are inaccurate, according to information provided by the Spokane County Assessor’s office.

Tax records show that if the bond is approved, the owner of a $200,000 home could pay taxes of $140 more in 2010, and $96 more for the proposed levy. The amounts are based on a tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value.

The campaign group says the misinformation was unintentional, and it was a matter of trying to fit a large amount of information in small print ads and 30-second television spots that have been running for several weeks.

“That’s not an excuse it’s just one of the realities we are coping with,” said Barb Chamberlain, co-chair of Citizens for Spokane Schools. “I think we made a very human mistake.”

The school district learned of the mistake on Thursday, after a television news reporter and a concerned citizen contacted officials, said Terren Roloff, district spokeswoman.

District staff did not preview the advertisements, Roloff said.

The ads, which clearly state taxpayers would pay “less than current rates,” and “no increase in rates,” were pulled from print.

Information on the campaign group’s Web page was removed, and the television spots expired last Friday and won’t be aired again, Chamberlain said.

“As soon as we realized we left a critical phrase out of our wording we took down anything we could get to,” she said.

Chamberlain said her group was using the fact that the estimated tax rates on the current ballot are the same or less than the estimated rates approved by voters for the same measures in previous years. According to tax records, that is true.

In 2006, voters approved a three-year levy amount of $3.69 per $1,000 of assessed property value. This year they are asking voters to approve a rate $3.56 per $1,000 in 2010. But the current rate is $2.86 per $1,000, or 70 cents less than what is proposed for 2010. The levy makes up 14.5 percent of the district’s operating budget, and pays for things like librarians, counselors and text books.

In 2003, voters approved a construction bond that paid for three new elementary schools and the remodel of two high schools. At that time, the district said it would cost no more than $1.96 per $1,000 of assessed value. The same is true of the current bond issue, which would remodel or renovate five additional schools. However, the current bond tax rate for 2009 is $1.48 per $1,000, or 48 cents less than the proposed rate for 2010.

Several things affect the tax rate from year to year, including lower interest rates when bonds are sold, and increases in assessed property values as well as more homes to spread the tax burden, Spokane County Assessor Ralph Baker said.

What effect the mishap will have on the campaign won’t be known until all ballots are counted March 10. As of Tuesday, more than 30,000 voters, or 28 percent had already returned their ballots.

“Our hope is that the voters remember what the dollars are for; that they do what Spokane voters have historically done for over three decades which is in good times and bad times support the kids in schools,” Chamberlain said.

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