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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Central Valley School District levy narrowly leads; East Valley levies approved

A student walks through an unsecured entrance at Trent Elementary on Jan. 6, 2020. Voters approved a pair of levies Tuesday to help fund the East Valley School District, which includes Trent. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Early election results in the Central Valley School District for a proposed tax increase to sustain current services were so close it may take many days of counting before it’s clear if it will pass.

Meanwhile, voters next door in the East Valley School District agreed to an increased levy for programs and as well as a second levy for infrastructure.

In the first count of ballots in Tuesday’s election, about 50.4% of Central Valley voters supported a levy to continue school programs at the same level. Mike McLaughlin, Spokane County elections manager, said there were about 1,100 votes left to count, plus more that were dropped off at the ballot box late Tuesday night.

To pass, the levies must surpass 50% support.

Central Valley Superintendent Ben Small said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the results but was pleased with the special election turnout, which was about 31.5% Tuesday night.

“We’re very appreciative of the support of our Central Valley voters,” Small said. “We’ll continue to watch as those (results) move forward and hope they move in a positive direction, but for tonight, we’re excited.”

Central Valley was asking for $11.8 million, increasing its current levy of $1.50 for every $1,000 of assessed property value to $2.50 for a year.

Those funds would sustain existing services and pay for a new public safety employee.

Central Valley is among many districts statewide that have returned to voters as the state has changed the way it funds schools. Those changes increased the amount of funding for what the state defines as basic education, leaving schools to fund anything above or beyond that.

Some school districts, such as Central Valley, Spokane County’s second-largest school district, and Mead, the county’s third-largest district, have approved significant salary increases and have had to lay off staff.

Central Valley’s salary increase was between 3% and 21%, depending on the teacher’s experience level and education, and Mead’s was between about 15% and 16%, depending on similar criteria. Both schools made significant cuts, with Mead closing an alternative school. In November, Mead floated a supplemental levy that failed.

The East Valley and West Valley school districts approved smaller pay increases, and East Valley did not have to lay off employees last year. West Valley voters passed a levy in November.

Small said Central Valley’s levy was not meant to support teachers’ compensation, but rather to support programs and staff members, such as nurses or counselors, who aren’t covered by recent changes in state funding.

“Our local levy doesn’t pay for compensation, it’s about what the state doesn’t fund,” he said.

The gap between what staff and programs the state’s new funding model covers and what districts have to ask voters for, has created issues for districts across the state said Tim Garchow, executive director for the Washington State School Directors’ Association, an organization that represents school board directors.

Garchow called the state’s model for funding schools “anemic,” saying it has increased the money for the state’s education model, but has left out some employees and programs that schools need to provide. He said many school districts can no longer afford to provide the service their community is used to without going back for additional levy money.

Some employees, such as school nurses and counselors, and programs that aren’t included in the state’s definition of basic education are not fully paid for, or are not covered at all, by the state.

“There is more money in education than we’ve ever had before, but there’s also more students and more requirements,” he said.

East Valley voters showed strong support for both items on its ballot. About 56.2% of voters supported the district’s two-year capital levy for infrastructure projects, and about 59.7% of voters supported a replacement programs levy for one that’s expiring.

Kelly Shea, superintendent of East Valley School District, said he was happy with the results so far.

“It’s a great feeling to see that support from my community,” he said.

The programs levy pays for about 60 employees and will last for four years, collecting an estimated $9.9 million in 2021, $10.9 million in 2022, $12 million in 2023 and $13.4 million in 2024.

The capital levy will last for two years and is estimated to collect $3.4 million in 2021 and $3.6 million in 2022. It will pay for new parking lots, plumbing issues at East Farms Elementary School and the Continuous Curriculum School, and heating and air conditioning units if there is money left over. The new parking lots will be at Otis Orchards, East Farms, Trent and the Continuous Curriculum schools.

Shea said the district has not yet paid for an engineer to do a cost estimate on the price to fix the plumbing issue at East Farms and the Continuous Curriculum, but early estimates to replace the old copper pipes are about $2 million for each school. The district will try to replace both.

Shea said the parking lots will make their school entrances, and the area where children exit and enter the bus, safer for students.