Levy rejection is lesson on how schools suffer
Get your yellow flier yet? If so, and if the scare language and the big numbers are giving you pause, when it comes to supporting your local schools, you might want to consider one more number: 1972.
Or, in the words of one old newspaper article: “the gloomy specter of 1972.”
Forty years ago, voters in Spokane rejected three consecutive levies, leading to widespread cuts, school closures and layoffs. Meanwhile, the Mead School District was implementing draconian changes on the heels of two consecutive years of levy rejections: Cutting nearly a third of its teaching staff. Eliminating all electives and extracurricular activities. Going from six class periods a day to five.
These were not theoretical cuts. Not the easy trimming of administrative fat. Not the simple, corrective efficiencies a tax hater’s dreams are made of.
“It was horrendous,” said Cash Stone, a longtime teacher and wrestling coach at Mead High who’s now retired. “I don’t want anyone to experience what we went through.”
To their credit, voters in the Mead and Spokane districts have not done that since. There has been the occasional levy failure – but those levies have been tightened, rerun and passed before they took effect on the budget. And there have been bond failures, affecting construction and maintenance.
But when it comes to the maintenance and operations levies, the property taxes that support about a quarter of local school budgets, we’ve been saying yes for decades. We’ve said yes so much that a lot of us no longer have any idea what happens when we say no.
In 1972, the Spokane school district tried to pass levies in February, April and November. Each barely failed – falling just short of the 60 percent majority that was then required. Nine elementary schools closed. Ten percent of teachers were laid off. Class offerings were reduced. Extracurricular activities were eliminated, then restored in a scaled-back form. An acrimonious conflict arose between the teachers union and the administration, planting the seeds for a battle that would play out for years and culminate in a teachers strike in 1979.
“It was a really big deal,” said Mike Ormsby, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington. “A lot of programs were eliminated – enrichment programs” in art, music and other subjects.
Ormsby was a freshman at North Central when the levies failed and a sophomore when they took effect. He said that for high school students in their junior or senior years, the cuts were disruptive. Students transferred between schools to make sure they could get into the classes they needed, as individual class offerings were scaled back.
Things were worse in Mead. Levies failed in 1970 and 1971, helped along by the last-minute appearance of fliers containing misleading language, exaggerations and nonsense like “Help schools, vote no.” Extracurricular activities were cut and stayed cut. Stone – a longtime fixture at Mead who was a technical adviser and extra in “Vision Quest” – remembers a standout wrestler named Dennis Trainor. Trainor, now the owner of Western States Construction, won the state title at 145 pounds as a junior. As a senior, “he and I were walking the halls,” Stone said.
The Colbert school was closed. Fifty out of 168 teachers were sent packing. Electives went out the window. Students in advanced placement courses were suddenly – in the years right before college – no longer in advanced placement courses.
“Kids like Dennis Trainor – they didn’t get their senior year back,” Stone said. “He’s just one example. There’s plenty of others.”
The lessons of 1972 settled in quickly. In 1973, voters all around the region voted overwhelmingly in favor of levies. In the intervening decades, levies have become a larger part of school budgets, as the state has continually shortchanged districts in its duty to educate its citizens.
The Mead levy failures in the 1970s led to cuts of not quite $500,000. Its current levy proposal of $20 million constitutes more than 26 percent of its budget. It would not – despite the all-caps claims of “NEW” or “EXCESS” taxes on the fliers of the critics – increase taxes. Even if this passes, school taxes in the Mead district are expected to go down: tax rates are rising, but home values are dropping, and the district expects to bring in slightly less than it has.
In Spokane, meanwhile, the current three-year, $73 million levy proposal would cover more than 23 percent of the budget. That’s compared to cuts of 17 percent in 1972 – cuts that also were softened by a much larger reserve fund.
“I think today, the ramifications of a levy failure would probably be more dramatic,” Ormsby said.
These levies – and several others around our region – replace expiring levies. They are “NEW” only in the strictest, most semantically argumentative sense of the word. They are “EXCESS” only in the Land of Nod, where craven self-interest dresses up as help for schools.
I’ve seen it argued that if we reject the levies, all that will happen is taxes will go down and schools will go on. Sure they will – after all, we’ve got to send the little nippers somewhere during the day.
Schools will go on. They will just be much, much worse. If we fail to recognize that, we’ll give our kids the chance to live through the good old days of 1972 all over again.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.