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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cheney school board sends $72 million bond and $53 million levies to February ballots

Cheney High School 10th grader Lydia Swenson tosses the flag into the air during the Cheney Marching band practice on Thu, Sep 21, 2023.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

A $72 million bond, $51 million educational programs and operations levy and $2.3 million capital levy are headed to February ballots following the Cheney School Board’s approval Wednesday.

The school board voted unanimously to approve each resolution, asking voters to agree to the separate property tax collections that pay for new schools, existing extracurriculars, staff, some curriculum and technology and security. The three separate measures will be on ballots in the February special election.

The bond would tax property owners at an estimated rate of 52 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value in 2025.

If passed, the capital levy would renew to 9 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value, around $2.3 million over three years.

Voter approval of the educational programs and operations levy would authorize the collection of more than $51 million in property taxes spread out over three years. The district estimates the rate will be $1.97 per $1,000 in assessed property value each year. In 2023, property owners will pay $1.30 per $1,000 towards this levy.

The district is bracing itself for the sunsetting of federal emergency pandemic funding with local levy dollars to maintain existing programs and staff.

All told, the anticipated tax rate for the three-year cycle renewing in 2025 is $3.94, accounting for the trifecta and repaying bonds from future elections.

The bond

The 2024 bond would fund the construction of an elementary school in Airway Heights, acquiring land for future facilities and making district-wide improvements, all determined by a community-wide coalition earlier this year.

On the docket for upgrades are Salnave and Windsor Elementary Schools – slated for kitchen expansions and improved bus loops; Cheney High School, Betz, Sunset and Windsor Elementary Schools – could get lighting, flooring and paint upgrades, and ventilation upgrades wherever the board deems necessary.

The sweeping district, more than 380 square miles, accounts for separate communities of Cheney proper and outlying Airway Heights and West Plains. Surrounding areas are expecting a rapid population boom following industry and residential development, spurring an expected enrollment increase of 760 pupils in the next decade, including 500 in Airway Heights.

This impending population boom necessitates a new elementary school in the region, said Cheney Public Schools Superintendent Ben Ferney.

“That’s where the school needs to go, and everyone in the facility planning committee from all different areas of our school district supported that idea,” Ferney said.

The levies

Operations levy funding currently accounts for about 11% of the district’s annual budget. Extracurriculars like sports, music and art are entirely funded by the levy.

The lion’s share of levy dollars are funneled toward staffing: teachers, coaches, paraeducators, administration, counselors and nurses. The state funds a proportion of staff based on enrollment, called the basic education formula. Ferney said it’s not enough to continue the status quo offered at schools.

“Our perception of public schools has levies,” Ferney said. “Everyone has levies because the basic education does not fund what we see and we’ve experienced in all of our lives with levies.”

While the greater operations levy fills the coffers of the district’s general fund, the capital levy is expressly allotted to technology and security improvements.

The two levies could have been rolled into one; the district opted to separate them so voters have an explicit understanding on what their taxes pay for, said district finance and operations director Jamie Reed.

“Having that transparency piece,” Reed said. “Letting people understand that there are dedicated dollars to ensuring we have replacement cycles in place and we’re able to support the technology as it grows and changes and what that looks like in education.”