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Levy would finance battle against Spokane high-school dropout rate

Effort seeks to establish Children’s Investment Fund

A high school dropout can cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in social services, one study shows. Dropouts are 63 times more likely to be institutionalized and three times more likely to be unemployed than high school graduates.

Yet one in three kids in Spokane drops out of high school, a ratio Spokane leaders call a “crisis,” and one that needs a plan of action.

Volunteers will gather signatures starting Tuesday to put a levy before voters in August to establish a Children’s Investment Fund. The money would be used to support early childhood learning, abuse and neglect prevention and treatment programs, mentoring programs and before- and after-school activities.

Supporters say enhancing those types of programs could improve Spokane’s graduation rate by up to 20 percentage points.

“Right now the community sees this as a school issue; it’s not,” said Ben Stuckart, executive director of Communities in Schools, a business-funded nonprofit that’s trying to tackle the dropout rate. “This is a community issue.”

The six-year levy would raise $5 million annually and would cost property owners about 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

A recent poll of Spokane voters and the city’s history of supporting children give initiative backers hope that city residents would agree to fund the effort. But others say voters may be feeling overtaxed.

Red Lion Hotels Chairman Don Barbieri, who is chairing the Children’s Investment Fund steering committee, said he views the issue as “absolutely fundamental to Spokane’s social and financial future.”

Meanwhile, Spokane Public Schools officials are concerned about the competition for taxpayers’ attention and dollars, despite losing $7,291 in funding for each dropout.

“Of course we want what’s best for children, but yes, we are worried about the next levy,” said Terren Roloff, spokeswoman for the district.

Modeled on programs elsewhere

Footwork on the Children’s Investment Fund began last spring during a high school dropout summit, Stuckart said. It’s modeled after successful initiatives in Portland, Seattle and Miami.

Seattle’s Families and Education Fund was first approved by voters in 1990 and has continued to receive voter approval. Portland voters approved a similar levy in 2002 and again in 2008.

School districts are already doing what they can, and something more needs to be done, said Mary Ann Murphy, executive director of Partners with Families and Children in Spokane and a member of the local Children’s Investment Fund steering committee.

“No one else is going to do this for us,” Murphy said.

To date, 37 organizations have joined the effort to help get the levy on the ballot and passed, Murphy said.

Children’s Investment Fund backers had hoped that the Spokane City Council would recommend putting the levy on the ballot without requiring signatures. But according to the city charter, the City Council can’t put two tax measures on the ballot within six months of each other, said Councilman Richard Rush. Right now, the council is considering putting a fire bond before voters in November.

Rush added that the council “traditionally doesn’t recommend putting initiatives such as this on the ballot.” But, he said, “it seems like an excellent investment in our city.”

If voters approve the levy, an 11-member committee will be appointed by Spokane’s mayor and approved by the City Council to oversee the fund.

“Getting the money would be competitive,” Murphy said. “The committee members will be watching this to see who is moving the (dropout) numbers. We want this to be a game-changer.”

Three accountability measures are built in: a six-year sunset clause, a 5 percent limit for administrative pay and an annual audit. The six-year clause means citizens would have to vote to renew the levy or it would end, Stuckart said. Barbieri, chairman of the steering committee, is optimistic.

“I think the voters will pass it. When it comes down to our children, Spokane does not ever give up,” he said. “We just need to get the best and brightest involved to help.”

Said Stuckart: “We are not going to get out of an economic melee if we don’t invest now.”

Continued support for school measures

While Washington limps through the recession, voters across the state have continued to support children.

According to a recent report by the Seattle Times, 165 school districts asked voters to approve a total of $4.6 billion in maintenance and operation levies earlier this month. Eleven districts had bond issues on the ballot, four districts asked for transportation funds, and another 32 districts asked voters to approve $835 million in capital levies. A majority of those passed with great support.

Locally, voters approved bonds and levies by more than 60 percent for six area school districts, including Cheney, Medical Lake and Rosalia.

The trend has been mirrored nationally, according to various news reports.

But asking Spokane voters to support this fund now, “I would call that ill-advised,” said Kate McCaslin, former Spokane County commissioner.

The economy is still shaky, the state faces another revenue shortfall, and locally, taxpayers could be asked to help finance a new jail, replace firefighting equipment, continue support of emergency medical services and possibly pay more money for animal shelter services.

“I think voters are in no mood for new taxes,” McCaslin said. “Most voters will think it’s patently unfair because the burden falls on property owners rather than asking for a general sales tax increase.”

Deana Brower, campaign co-chairwoman for Spokane Public Schools’ 2012 levy, said, “Our community has always supported education and educational programs, which is fabulous.” But she said the state is failing to pay for education basics right now and the levy is needed to make up the difference.

“You hate to see two entities fighting over money for the common good of children,” Brower said. “On the one hand, I’d like to say, ‘Let’s fund everything for kids,’ but on the other hand, we need to fund the basics.”

If the Children’s Investment Fund is approved, the next chance to vote – six years – is timed to avoid competing with the school’s next bond, Stuckart said.

To gauge how voters might react to the levy, the fund’s steering committee hired Robinson Research, which conducted a phone survey of 400 Spokane voters in September. Some 62 percent indicated they would be in favor of the investment fund.

“The Children’s Investment Fund stands an excellent chance of becoming a reality if it is supported by a vigorous, focused and well-funded campaign,” the study states in its conclusion.

Kerry Lynch, one of the initiative’s campaign consultants, has been key in getting several levies passed in Spokane, including those for the convention center and new swimming pools.

Said Lynch: “If you educate the voters (and) you don’t confuse them, they are supportive.”



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