Operating a school district is expensive.
Renovating aging buildings, buying band instruments, hiring coaches, keeping up with technology and making sure buildings are heated or cooled add up to big dollars.
Reductions in state funding and the loss of federal stimulus money are forcing school districts to count on property owners’ support through bonds and levies just to fund some of the basics. Four Spokane County school districts – Central Valley, Mead, Newport and Reardan-Edwall – hope voters will understand the need when they mark their ballots for the Feb. 8 special election. Ballots will be mailed Friday.
District administrators are somewhat concerned about the outcome after November’s general election in which voters made it clear there was no interest in increased taxes. But the levies and bonds on this ballot are continued taxes; property owners would pay the same or just a few cents more per $1,000 assessed value.
“I worry. Everybody is squeezing tighter and tighter,” said Marcus Morgan, superintendent of Reardan-Edwall School District. “We just hope that people understand the importance of education. We are not trying to grow, we are just trying to maintain.”
Kerry Lynch, a bond and levy campaign consultant for nearly three decades, said voters “have always passed those (bonds and levies) at pretty high levels. Residents understand the need, especially if those are communicated well. I really hope the community helps them again especially during this time. The levies are funding basic education.”
While levies provide money for learning programs and activities, the tax dollars from approved bonds are used for student safety, to replace aging or outdated equipment and to build district facilities.
Central Valley’s $69.9 million bond package includes building a new elementary school, the renovation of Ponderosa and Greenacres elementary schools and the renovation and expansion of Evergreen Middle School and Chester and Opportunity elementary schools.
“Half of our facilities are in need of attention,” said Ben Small, Central Valley’s superintendent. “But we couldn’t put them all on this bond.”
The school buildings in the bond were built in the late 1960s to late ’70s, officials said. Those high-use facilities have simply grown old.
An enrollment increase led to the need for a new elementary school and the expansion of two others, officials said. The new school will be located at Mission and Long and house up to 500 students, helping ease crowding at Greenacres and Liberty Lake elementary schools.
Heating and cooling systems will be replaced, security cameras and a districtwide emergency notification system installed, and technology improved.
“We understand this is a tough time in the economy,” Small said. “But this economy has also given us the opportunity to do this at a much lower cost.”
Construction, supplies, property and interest rates for bonds are less expensive right now, officials said.
“It’s a good time to invest in schools,” Small said. “Not a good time; it’s a great time.”
Mead’s $59 million bond includes the modernization of Midway and Shiloh Hills elementary schools and Northwood Middle School; upgrading technology; carpet and roof replacement; heating and cooling system upgrades; and acquiring property for future school sites. The current rate of $2.20 per $1,000 assessed value will remain the same, Mead officials said.
“This is probably the best comprehensive package that has been put together,” said Thomas Rockefeller, Mead’s superintendent. The proposal “started out much higher,” but a committee of parents, community members, business owners and school representatives met over a year’s time to determine priorities for the bond.
Central Valley School District used a similar process to determine its bond proposal.
The last time a bond failed in the Mead School District was 1973. Central Valley School District had one fail in 2006.
Both district leaders seem confident voters understand the need. While there is no organized opposition to the bonds, the superintendents are hesitant to consider them a given.
“We have a heightened awareness. We have a concern,” Rockefeller said.
Small added, “This is a local tax. It doesn’t go to Olympia. It has a local impact. If taxes had been passed in the general election, I’d be more concerned.”
Reardan-Edwall, a small district about 24 miles southwest of Spokane that straddles Spokane and Lincoln counties, is asking voters to continue its $1.1 million levy with a 5 percent increase each year, for the next four years.
Athletic programs are 100 percent dependent on the levy as well as programs such as Future Business Leaders of America and FFA and other extracurricular activities, Morgan said.
The money also pays for four teachers, he added.
The rate per $1,000 assessed value is $2.72 now, and in 2012 it will be $2.73, “then it should hold level,” Morgan said. “Worst case, it will go up by 10 cents each year.”
The Newport School District, about 40 miles northeast of Spokane with residents in Spokane and Pend Oreille counties, is asking voters to approve a three-year $1.3 million replacement levy. It would cost $1.82 per $1,000 assessed value in 2012 then decrease over the subsequent two years.
The money pays for staff and programs, including music and arts, transportation from afterschool activities, a teacher for the gifted program, two school counselors and nursing services.
“It is now more important than ever that levies are passed,” wrote Newport School District Superintendent Jason Thompson in a levy presentation. “Monies that districts had previously received are being cut and more programs are no longer being funded by the state.”