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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public Schools to seek $221 million replacement levy in February

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street.  (JESSE TINSLEY)

For the Spokane Public Schools board of directors, a proposed $221.6 million replacement levy was an easy sell.

Now the district needs to convince voters, who must approve the proposal in a special election on Feb. 9.

The school board gave the go-ahead Wednesday night to a graduated, three-year levy that replaces the one expiring next year.

If approved, it would cost taxpayers $2.40 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2021, 5 cents more the following year and $2.50 – the maximum allowed – in the final year.

For a home assessed at $300,000, that comes out to $720, $735 and $750 per year, respectively.

However, associate superintendent Mark Anderson pointed out that because of the 2018 McCleary decision that essentially shifted tax burden to wealthier Puget Sound school districts, Spokane homeowners would be paying less than they did four years ago.

That message worked well in 2018, when voters passed a landmark $495 million bond in addition to a levy.

Spokane voters have traditionally given overwhelming support to levies, which require only a simple majority for passage.

Approval rates topped 80% at the turn of the millennium before falling into the 60s during the recession. The most recent levy, in 2018, was backed by 73% of Spokane voters who cast a ballot.

However, much has changed since then. COVID-19 has wracked the economy, teachers have received substantial pay raises while many taxpayers are out of work, and a significant number of families are upset at how Spokane and other districts are handling the pandemic and online learning.

“I’ve been surprised more than once with voter turnout and outcomes,” Board President Jerrall Haynes said.

The district’s next step is to finalize the ballot amount, file an expenditure plan with the state superintendent’s office and place the levy on the Feb. 9 ballot. Other school districts are expected to do the same.

The levy would pay for a variety of programs and personnel not covered by the state, including special education, elementary specialists, librarians, nurses, counselors, behavioral specialists, English Language Learners, curriculum materials, music, art and athletics .

“It’s foundational to the educational experiences we provide our students,” said Superintendent Adam Swinyard, who noted that the state funds only four nurses for the district, forcing the latter to hire 40 more to cover each building.

It’s the same story for counselors and other specialists, many of whom were laid off or reassigned during the budget crisis in the spring of 2019. The levy would restore some of those cuts, but not all.

Wednesday’s meeting was devoted to choosing between two levy scenarios. One called for a $2.50 per $1,000 tax for all three years, which would have raised about $4.1 million more.

However, board members leaned toward the graduated model because it might ruffle fewer feathers among voters and perhaps make a difference in February.

“It could for sure, especially when we factor in what neighboring districts may do,” Haynes said. “It could create a sign in the minds of the voters … that we are being as thoughtful as possible.”

Anderson backed up that argument by pointing out that the district will probably need more money in 2022 and 2023 as three new middle schools go online.

Regardless, there will be more “belt-tightening” ahead, Swinyard said.

The district also plans to move swiftly to “educate voters,” Anderson said.

That might be easier because of the pandemic, as more people could be accommodated on Zoom meetings than in traditional gatherings.