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Schools support firm despite ad slip, bad economy

Even amid economic uncertainty, the majority of voters Tuesday appeared willing to accept possible property tax increases in support of Spokane-area school districts.

Results from a special election show nearly every school measure placed before voters throughout Spokane and Stevens counties appeared to be passing, including a massive Spokane Public Schools construction bond.

The $288 million proposal, which officials have said will pump millions back into the local economy and provide thousands of jobs, was ahead 29,187 to 17,685. The measure needs a 60 percent supermajority to pass.

Tuesday’s results were not final, with another ballot count expected today.

Constituents in most school districts were also approving three-year replacement maintenance-and-operations levies, which pay for educational programs not covered by state funding.

Tuesday’s ballot count shows Spokane’s levy passing 30,539 votes to 16,499. Levy dollars make up 14.5 percent of the district’s operating budget, and pays for things like librarians, counselors and extracurricular activities.

Maintenance-and-operations levies were passing in Mead, Cheney, Nine Mile Falls, Deer Park, Riverside and Liberty school districts.

“Our intention was to tell the story and ask voters to vote yes for kids,” said Barb Chamberlain, co-chairwoman of Citizens for Spokane Schools.

The group spent last week dealing with backlash from advertisements that contained false information about how much voters could be expected to pay.

Campaign mailers, print advertisements, and television news spots claimed that if voters approved the estimated tax rates for both measures, they’d end up paying less than they already were. Records from the Spokane County Assessor’s Office showed that information to be incorrect.

Chamberlain said wording on the ads confused the fact that estimated tax rates on the current ballot are the same or less than the estimated rates approved in 2003. But the estimated tax rates for 2010 are higher than what taxpayers are currently paying, which is $2.86 per $1,000. The approved rate is $3.56 per $1,000. Typically, the amount taxpayers actually pay is lower than what is approved, based on assessed home values and state funding for levy equalization, officials said.

“The issue has been really stressful,” Chamberlain said. “We’re glad to have that behind us – we learned a lot.”

The mishap angered some district patrons, and while the majority of voters answered “yes,” the misunderstanding did affect some votes.

“I pay thousands of thousands in taxes to support schools and I have for years and years and I don’t complain about it,” said Richard Brooke, a Spokane voter and father of children attending Spokane schools. Brooke said he voted “no” on both measures after hearing of the misleading ads last week. “Two issues are going on here; one they misled us, which is wrong, and two, these are significant increases in a very difficult economy. I think they need to curb back some of their ambitions.”

The measure will pay for five big-ticket projects, including the renovation or replacement of Ferris High School and Westview, Hutton and Jefferson elementary schools.

Asking voters to open their pocketbooks for money to build new schools or renovate old ones has been a difficult sell.

In February, East Valley School District voters rejected a bond to renovate aging facilities. In November, five communities were asked to approve school construction bonds across the state. None passed.

According to Tuesday’s results, the Spokane construction bond was favored by precincts on the South Hill, which tend to have higher voter turnout and higher-income households. On the North Side, results show voters were significantly less supportive, especially in neighborhoods such as northeast Spokane, where poverty is higher.

“I think you always worry, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Nancy Stowell, superintendent of Spokane schools. “But this has been a great community known for its support for public education.”

The Reardan-Edwall School District asked voters to approve a capital projects levy to maintain and repair its facilities. The measure was passing Tuesday night, 624 to 564. The measure was failing in Spokane County, but voters in Lincoln County supported it.

More than $145,000 has been spent by Citizens for Spokane Schools on the 2009 campaign.

In 2003, officials spent $92,700 on a campaign for both a bond and a levy, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

By comparison, the campaign for the Mead School District spent $12,460 this year for the levy, which was passing 8,995 to 5,406.

Sara Leaming can be reached at (509) 459-5533 or