February 14, 2012 in News

Levies pass in Spokane’s largest districts

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane County school officials were nervous about their levies leading up to Tuesday’s election because of a fierce anti-levy campaign and volatile economic times.

But voting results showed community support for the school districts is still strong in a majority of the county.

The levies in the region’s largest districts – Spokane Public Schools, Mead School District and Central Valley School District – were passing with about 60 percent approval.

As of Tuesday night, more than 100,000 ballots had been counted. An estimated 15,000 more ballots were expected to be counted, according to Vicky Dalton, Spokane County Auditor.

“I’m so excited and thrilled,” said Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Stowell. “This is a strong affirmation from our community.”

The two-, three- and four-year maintenance and operation levies replace the current local tax with a few dimes tacked on to compensate for state budget cuts. District officials say levies are more critical now than ever before because the local tax is helping pay for more basic education as state revenue has been reduced.

In 2009, levies were less than 15 percent of a school district’s operating budget compared to 20 to 25 percent now.

“I just don’t know what kind of school district we would have had if it would have gone down,” Mead School District Superintendent Thomas Rockefeller said. “I’m very pleased with the results.”

All but three of Spokane County’s school districts had levies on Tuesday’s ballot. Only Riverside School District, which also includes voters in Pend Oreille County, and Deer Park School District, which includes voters in Pend Oreille and Stevens counties, appeared to be failing.

Deer Park had just 47 percent approval and Riverside had only 37 percent. Nine Mile Falls School District’s levy was too close to call.

Nearly 100 supporters of Central Valley School District gathered at an area coffee shop to await the election results on Tuesday.

The group was relieved to find out it had passed. “Absolutely we were worried, and excited to see the results,” said Superintendent Ben Small. “We are confident the results will stick. We are excited for our children and our community for stepping up and supporting our students.”

Kerry Lynch, Citizens for Spokane Schools Levy campaign coordinator, said this campaign was different than any she’s been a part of since the 1970s.

“I think this one had a lot of energy…a lot of volunteers,” she said. “People were really fired up, especially because of the negative campaign out there.”

Retired business owner Duane Alton led an anti-levy campaign throughout the county. According to state records, Alton spent more than $60,000 on mailers, billboards and leaflets.

Stowell thinks community support combated the negative campaign, including endorsements from business organizations, higher education and nonprofits.

The estimated tax rate will go up in nearly all districts because property values have gone down and many of the districts have asked voters to approve a little more money to compensate for a possible cut to state levy equalization funds – money given to poorer school districts. If the state comes through, however, district officials pledge they will not collect those additional funds.

The largest portion of the tax, about 80 percent on average, supports educational programs: drop-out prevention; smaller class sizes, which includes supplementing salaries for teachers and support staff; custodial staff; library positions; online learning; a number of administrative positions; school resource officers; elective classes in high school; and elementary school art and music programs.

The tax supports hundreds of positions in each school district. In Spokane Public Schools, that’s about 3,000 positions, including teachers, coaches, extracurricular advisors, special education teachers, administrators and support staff. The remainder of the district’s compensation costs are covered by state and federal money.

Melanie Rose, Central Valley spokeswoman, described her thoughts of the levy passing in one word: “yay.”


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