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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Property tax proposals top of mind in Cheney Public Schools board race

Incumbent in Cheney School Board’s second district and online teacher Elizabeth Winer is asking voters for their approval for the remaining two years of the term.

The incumbent Cheney School Board member and her challenger in the November election both support tax measures to help the district deal with growing enrollment.

But the candidates for district 2 disagree on how to encourage voters to support the measures which will appear on the February ballot.

Online teacher Elizabeth Winer, who was appointed to a vacancy on the board in May, is running to keep the seat for the two years left in the term. She faces district parent and insurance agent Josh Sutton, who also applied to be considered for the empty position. The previous board member who held the seat, Zachary Zorrozua, resigned in April to avoid a conflict of interest when his spouse applied to be Cheney Middle School assistant principal.  

Bond proposals 

The largest by area in Spokane County, Cheney Public Schools spans more than 380 square miles and serves the communities of Cheney, Airway Heights and the West Plains. Rapidly industrializing and the site of new Amazon facilities, Airway Heights is anticipating a population boom, leaving the district bracing itself to welcome an estimated 500 additional students in the next decade. To accommodate them, the district plans to ask voters to approve a bond renewal on February ballots.

While the amount and specifics of what it will pay for are subject to the board’s approval, a committee of district residents in June recommended an estimated $68 million proposal to fund the construction of an elementary school in Airway Heights, buying two locations for a future elementary school and secondary school, and renovating current facilities.

If approved by the board and if passed by 60% of voters, the tax rate would be an estimated $1.94 per $1,000 in assessed property value for bond projects.

Both candidates said they support the bond proposal. Sutton said he would support whatever the district needed, but stressed the communication necessary to get voters on board.

“It’s hard to pass bonds in Cheney; it is extremely tough,” Sutton said. “But I also don’t think that we sell it very well.”

To better appeal to voters, Sutton said he would communicate with district families on exactly what the bond would pay for and why it’s needed. A strategy he said is especially pertinent in the February proposal because Airway Heights receiving the bulk of the attention. Sutton said this may sour voters in Cheney who may feel unfairly burdened paying taxes to build schools in Airway Heights rather than in their own neighborhood.

“The kids say everything’s fine until the Airway Heights buses come in,” he said. “The kids are different. You see them get off the bus when my daughter was attending Cheney Middle School; you’d see the Airway Heights kids come in and they’re loud. They’re disrespectful. They just don’t care.”

Winer said the population swell makes bond passage imperative. Since the proposal was designed by the community, she hoped residents would get behind a plan with their influence.

“The schools, especially in the West Plains are kind of bursting at the seams,” Winer said. “If you don’t have children in elementary schools, please vote to support our community’s children. Because education is just such a foundational part of a community.”

One or two levies?

With five months under her belt, Winer said grappling with what the district should present to voters on February ballots has been a large focus of her energy on the board.

While the final amount of the bond and levies is undetermined, pending the board’s approval, Winer said they’re determining whether to present the operations and capital levies as separate ballot measures or roll them into one levy. The sum of the taxes would be the same regardless of if they’re one item or two on the ballot.

Cheney property owners pay $1.31 per $1,000 in assessed property value in the operations levy and 8 cents towards the capital levy.

Each tax falls into a different pool to be spent on different items, operations on activities, extracurriculars and additional staff beyond the state’s funding. Capital dollars go toward construction and updates on schools, as well as technology like students’ Chromebooks.

Considering voter appetite, transparency and implications on spending levy dollars, Winer said she supports two ballot measures.

“We want to be explicit about where that money is going and what that money is going to be used for,” Winer said.

She recognized that three asks – each levy and the bond – from the district is a lot on taxpayers, but she said communication and transparency about how the money will be spent will spur votes of confidence .

Both candidates expressed the need to compete with other local districts in attracting and hiring qualified teachers, bus drivers and support staff by offering competitive salaries . Winer said she supported raising the levy, but keeping it lower than in previous years and lower compared to neighboring districts.

“We’re kind of at a turning point here. As a district, do we want to compete with Spokane, Central Valley, East Valley, the other big districts in terms of attracting quality teaching staff?” Winer said, noting that Cheney is one of the larger district in Spokane County.

Among school districts in Spokane County, Cheney has the fourth largest enrollment.

“ I think to attract the same quality of teaching talent, we need to have that increase in the levy to support that,” Winer said.

Sutton said he was supportive of renewing the levy, but to cushion the tax he proposed soliciting more booster money from district families, which could be encouraged by fostering school pride among families.

“If you have parents that believe in that, I believe checks can be written. I really do,” Sutton said.