On the Feb. 9 special election ballot, the Spokane Public School board wants voters to approve Proposition 1, a major property tax increase. School officials claim it is merely a “renewal” of the old special levy. This is not true, as shown by our new study, “Spokane Public Schools seek property tax increase as working families and homeowners struggle with lost income and unemployment amid COVID shutdown.” School officials are not being transparent and honest with the public.
The 2018 special levy tax took a total of $105 million from Spokane homeowners. The proposed 2021 levy that is before voters in February would take more than twice that amount, $221.6 million. In honest terms, that’s a tax increase.
Spokane Public Schools already has plenty of money to educate its 30,000 students, and to fund enhancements to their education. Taxpayers have recently increased the budget of Spokane Public Schools.
In 2017 and 2018 the state Legislature increased the state property tax for schools. As a result, Spokane School officials saw their budget grow from $412 million in 2017-18 to $482 million in 2020-21. The per student spending they received grew from $13,751 in 2017-18 to $16,030 in 2020-21.
The problem Spokane Schools faces is not lack of funding, but lack of spending discipline. The district has run down its reserves and substantially increased staff pay and benefits.
The governor’s decision to shut down the economy has caused economic devastation to hundreds of thousands of families. Unemployment has approached Great Depression levels, nearing 25% in some areas.
Hundreds of small and midsized community businesses have closed and gone bankrupt. Whole sectors of the economy have been shut down, with widespread unemployment affecting working families in every part of the state.
Employment numbers for Spokane and Spokane Valley show all categories of workers suffered dramatic drops in employment since April. The hardest-hit sectors are retail, mining, logging and construction, and leisure and hospitality, lost jobs that are vital to many working families.
Not all sectors were affected equally. People paid by government agencies and school districts were hardly impacted at all.
These sectors continue with full employment and full incomes, while people working in other sectors suffer.
Payrolls and benefits for public school employees remain fully funded, although many of their peer educators working at private schools were laid off without pay.
The personal pain and uncertainty remain. Many people are concerned as the governor extends his orders to close large sectors of the economy.
Parents in particular are learning that schools may not reopen in the current school year.
The recent crisis has caused intense disruption, loss and personal pain to families living in Spokane and across the state. Most families have not recovered, and continue to experience lost income, emotional stress and broken daily lives. Working families have been particularly hard hit by school officials’ decisions to close schools while still collecting full tax revenues, so that public school administrators, elected officials and public-sector employees are protected.
Seeking a $221.6 million tax increase, on top of current high tax rates, shows a misunderstanding of the times by Spokane school leaders.
The tax-increase ballot measure gives an appearance of not caring about people’s lived experiences, and of being insensitive to the real day-to-day problems that Spokane-area families face.
Considering all the disruption and lost income families and business owners have incurred, reports show school district officials are doing very well financially, with rising budgets and an overall sound tax system in place. The private economy and many family incomes were shut down, but government tax collections continue uninterrupted.
Whether these conditions justify the desire of school officials for another tax increase to add to their budget is something Spokane voters will decide in February.
Liv Finne is the director of the center for education at the Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Seattle and Olympia.
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