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News >  K-12 education

Pandemic or politics? Spokane-area school levies were less successful in conservative districts

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 11, 2021

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

As the levy election results came through Tuesday night, school districts in Spokane County didn’t celebrate.

“We never take anything for granted,” Cheney Superintendent Robert Roettger said after his district passed a pair of levies.

Rather, they exhaled, accepted what amounted to a C-plus grade from voters and moved forward with the realization that there’s more work ahead.

“People are more aware now, they’re paying more attention to the school districts, which I think is good,” said Russell Neff, leader of the Open Spokane Schools group.

Mead’s levy request appeared safe with the addition of more votes on Wednesday. It has 52.4% approval. Central Valley also padded its margin, to 54.3%.

Deer Park moved into the clear, improving to 55.1%, and Reardan-Edwall’s levy had 54.3% approval.

The only levy trailing was in Nine Mile Falls, where the “no” votes led 1,601 to 1,565, a margin of 36 .

Overall, Tuesday’s levy election in Spokane County went as expected, with moderate drops in support from levy elections held in 2018.

COVID-19 was the main reason, but there were others: lingering resentment over teacher salary hikes in 2018, property tax increases, frustration with distance learning and economic hardship for many families.

“Schools need to stay on budget and get kids back to school fully, not hybrid,” Neff said. “Kids need to be in school now.”

But perhaps the biggest revelation was that districts located in conservative areas suffered a steeper drop in support than in more liberal parts of the county.

Based on Tuesday’s returns, political leanings had a greater bearing on the results than any other factor, even how each district handled the pandemic.

Perhaps the biggest example is Mead, which was the largest district in the state to begin the school year with every student having at least two days a week in class.

Mead, however, suffered the biggest drop in support of any district in the county, from 70.3% approval in 2018 to 54.3%.

Likewise, in 2018, Central Valley School District passed a supplemental levy with 70.3% approval. This year, support was 53.6%.

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

In the Riverside School District in northern Spokane County, “yes” votes fell 13 percentage points, to 55.7%. To the south, Freeman saw support drop from 65% to 55%.

In contrast, Spokane Public Schools won 63.6% approval for its three-year, $221 million levy proposal.

That’s a drop from the 73% “yes” vote in 2018, but not nearly as severe as its neighbors, despite being the last district in the county to return all students to classes.

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Cheney, another district that took a cautious approach to in-person learning, did even better in holding the line. Two years ago, it won 61% approval; on Tuesday that number was 55.2% – the smallest decrease in the county.

“I don’t know if there is any secret,” Roettger said Wednesday. “But we’ve great support from the Cheney and Airway Heights communities.”

“But I would say that we have a reputation for education, and I think that definitely helps,” Roettger said.

Most precincts in the city of Cheney went heavily Democratic in the 2020 presidential election. For example, Precinct 6702, which includes most of downtown Cheney, voted 60% for Joe Biden. That same precinct approved the Cheney schools levy by a 3-to-1 margin.

Three years later, the voters of Precinct 6702 backed their levy by about a 5-to-2 ratio.

In contrast, support for levies fell sharply in many rural, conservative precincts across the county.

In Mead, this year’s levy probably suffered from resentment over the approval of teacher salary increases averaging 16.3%, followed by the elimination of the M.E.A.D. Alternative High School and the Riverpoint Academy.

Conservative precincts, however, also came down heavily against the Mead levy. In Precinct 4008, Peone Prairie residents gave 51% approval to the 2018 levy. This year they were 60% opposed. Trump carried that precinct with 70% of the vote.

Three years ago, residents in the Chapman Road area, Precinct 9904, backed Central Valley’s replacement 53% to 47%. On Tuesday, those percentages had slipped and then some: 61% voted no.

CV also lost ground among its biggest supporters. In 2018, voters in Precinct 4304 – on the south bank of the Spokane River – backed the levy with 73% approval; this year it was only 59%.

The levy got 44 more “yes” votes than in 2018; however, this year’s election saw a large bump in opposition, as “no” votes soared from 115 to 224.

An increase in “no” votes was widespread, possibly a reaction to the Spokane County Republican Party’s public stance against the levy proposed by Spokane Public Schools.

Calling that district’s officials “fiscally irresponsible,” the GOP urged a “no” vote.

And while it targeted only Spokane, some of its arguments may have swayed voters in neighboring districts.

The pandemic also played a major role.

In Deer Park, Superintendent Travis Hanson and his staff appeared to make all the right moves ahead of the election.

Acceding to the wishes of most parents, Deer Park was the first district in the county to bring students back to class.

Moreover, Tuesday’s replacement levy proposal was set at the bare minimum to qualify to receive Local Effort Assistance funding from the state: $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed home value.

Despite that, Deer Park’s levy barely passed, with 52.3% voting yes.; three years ago it was won 66% approval.

“We knew that things would go a little lower this year,” said Hanson, whose district straddles the border between Spokane and Stevens counties.

“We definitely have some pockets of poverty, and the larger economy plays a role in part of this,” Hanson said.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Feb. 11, 2011 to correct information related to voting in the Cheney School District. Most precincts in the city of Cheney voted for President Joe Biden in 2020. An earlier version incorrectly stated that most precincts in the school district did so.

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