Four weeks before Election Day, political battles lines have suddenly formed around the replacement levy proposed by Spokane Public Schools.
On the same day that that the Spokane County Republican Party issued a statement opposing the levy, a sharply divided Spokane City Council on Monday gave its support and Greater Spokane Incorporated pledged its backing for the measure on the Feb. 9 ballot.
Spokane voters will decide whether to approve a three-year, $221.6 million levy that the district says will fill funding gaps not covered by the state, such as nurses, counselors, special education and other programs.
Spokane voters have routinely approved SPS levies, which require only a simple majority for passage.
However, the district has drawn criticism from fiscal conservatives and parents who disagree with its cautious approach to returning students to class in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The district announced last week that all students would return at least two days a week by March 1.
GOP leaders were not available for comment on Tuesday. But in a lengthy statement, the party said the school district “has lost our confidence in its request for increased funding.”
The county GOP accuses the district of being deceptive in its claim that tax rates will drop. It also said the district knew that approving steep teacher pay hikes in 2018 would create future funding problems; that the levy is ill timed because of hardships created by the COVID-19 pandemic; that property tax hikes will be passed down to tenants who may be unable to afford them; and that families and students have been shortchanged by the cautious phase-in of in-person learning.
The statement continued: “These concerns and others have led us to a place where we must oppose this levy. It is time for the Spokane School District to be responsive to all of their community and be responsible and accountable for their spending and budgetary failures.”
The district has said that rates will be lower than in 2018, and Superintendent Adam Swinyard said it has been transparent in its presentations, including charts that show an increase from this year to 2022, the first year the new rates would take effect.
However, earlier on Monday, Greater Spokane Incorporated, the region’s leading business advocacy organization, came out strongly in favor of levies.
The GSI website includes a page of information, with one overarching message: education is good for business.
“GSI has a long history of support for our schools and our school levies,” Chief Executive Officer Alisha Benson said Tuesday. “We know that local investment in education is critical for our local economy, and as we work to come out of this pandemic, we will continue to rely on those investments.”
“The decisions we make now will affect us for years to come,” Benson said.
Benson also noted that school districts are delivering essential services, such as food, “in some ways more than before the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, the issue left the Spokane City Council fractured – not only over the merits of the levy but whether the city had any business taking a position.
The board heard from several community members on both sides of the issue.
Nicole Gleason said she supported the levy partly because it would pay nurses and other personnel.
“I can’t imagine what would happen if we didn’t have the funds to fill these critical positions,” Gleason said.
Joanna Hyatt, a leader of the Open Spokane Schools group, countered that the district has ignored parents’ pleas for a quicker return to in-person learning.
“A lot of them are frustrated with Spokane schools because for over eight months, we have watched them drag their feet in getting students into the classroom in a safe, creative way,” she said.
“The district has brought us to this place where we have to oppose the levy because they will not listen to us,” said Hyatt, who also urged council members not to “intentionally try to use their influence to sway voters in a particular direction, without really giving equal time to both sides of the conversation.”
However, following a discussion, the council voted 4-3 in favor of the resolution.
“We basically consider every tax measure that’s on the ballot, and we weigh in with a resolution every time there’s one on there. So we always do this,” Council President Breean Beggs said.
“And I can just speak for myself, I support this,” Beggs said. “This tax rate that we’re going to be at is going to be at one of the lowest rates that we’ve been at historically. And the state is cutting back money that they’re currently giving to the district. And we’re going to lose jobs if we don’t do this, and we’re going to have to cut services to kids.”
Beggs was joined in the majority by council members Kate Burke, Betsy Wilkerson and Karen Stratton.
Michael Cathcart voted against the resolution after citing concerns about the school district’s financial responsibility. Lori Kinnear and Candice Mumm opposed the resolution because they felt the city should not get involved in school district issues.
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