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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County voters reject school bonds, but give backing to levies

By Elena Perry and Nick Gibson The Spokesman-Review

For the first time in more than 50 years, Spokane voters chose to fail a Spokane Public Schools bond.

Countywide, voters had the same pattern; none of the five school districts’ bond requests was able to conquer the 60% supermajority approval from voters. Bond proposals failed in the Spokane, Cheney, Deer Park, West Valley and Riverside districts.

But voters had more of an appetite to pass levies, with preliminary results indicating the passage of most school districts’ levy asks, though some districts’ levies are too close to call with many more votes left to be counted. Levies passed in Spokane, Cheney, Liberty, Riverside and West Valley. Levies were passing but too close to call in Central Valley, East Valley, Freeman and Mead.

In Spokane Public Schools, the $200 million bond proposal would have paid for the latest phase in a decades-long effort to maintain and upgrade the district’s 57 facilities.

“We knew, with assessed value exploding, that this was going to be a really difficult hill to climb and, you know, we’ll have to regroup,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard told a group of levy and bond supporters gathered Tuesday night at Shawn O’Donnell’s American Grill in north Spokane. “What doesn’t change tonight is that kids need us, and what doesn’t change tonight is that we still need to update our facilities and take care of them. That need doesn’t go away, and so we’re going to keep fighting. We’re going to regroup, and we’re going to keep fighting, and we’re going to keep showing up for kids, and we’re going to keep doing the good work.”

Support for school taxes in Spokane County has tumbled in the last six years.

In 2018, 70% or more of voters backed levies in Spokane Public Schools and the Mead and Central Valley districts. All were under 55% on Tuesday.

Besides inflation and other concerns about the economy, school districts also were up against organized opposition.

Citing increasing school budgets and “terrible” state test scores, the Spokane County Republican Party urged voters to vote down ballot items in Spokane, Central Valley and Mead school districts. Leading up to Election Day, the group sent out texts to over 30,000 “likely Republican” residents with outstanding ballots in these areas.

“We’re not against funding schools, we’re against the way schools are funded,” said Rob Linebarger, chair of the candidates and marketing committee with the party.

Schools’ budgets are top-heavy, Linebarger said, and direct too much funding toward administrator’s salaries rather than being spent to reduce class sizes and on materials for classrooms.

In Spokane Public Schools, 4.8% of their general fund budget goes toward central administration. In Central Valley, it’s 4.6%.

Teaching activities and support, including teacher salaries, instructional assistants, curriculum, extracurriculars and other nonadministrative staff, receive 72% of each district’s budget.

The Yes for Kids campaign, the group backing Spokane’s levy and bond proposals, sent mailers to Spokane Public Schools’ district residents advertising the ballot proposals and what they would pay for: curriculum materials, teachers, technology, extracurriculars, support staff under the levy and construction projects with the bond.

Spokane Public Schools sent text notifications to district families urging recipients to turn in their ballots.

Districts often seek levy renewals on a two- or three-year cycle. All county school districts use taxes collected from the educational programs and operations levy to bridge the gap between what districts deem necessary for education and money provided by the state per their enrollment-based basic education funding formula. Levy dollars pay for everything beyond basic education, including all extracurricular offerings, supplemental teachers to lower class sizes, school safety and technology and support staff.

Some districts are seeking separate capital improvement levies, from which taxes are earmarked to small construction projects, some safety and some technology. Levy ballot proposals need a simple majority, over 50% of voter approval to pass.

Here’s a look at how each district’s ballot measures fared on election night:

Spokane Public Schools

Proposition No. 1: Educational Programs and Operations Levy


Yes: 54.7%

No: 45.3%

Spokane Public Schools sought voters’ approval on the collection of property taxes from 2025 to 2027 in a renewal of their educational programs and operations levy. Over three years, the district will collect $297 million. The levy makes up 14% of the district’s budget and funds extracurricular activities, supplemental staff salaries and other programs the state doesn’t pay for.

The proposal would tax property owners at an estimated rate of $2.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value each of those years.

Educators and school officials were relieved and grateful of the levy’s passage.

Proposition No. 2: Bond

Failed. Did not meet 60% threshold.

Yes: 54.4%

No: 45.6%

The district sought a $200 million bond to pay for several major projects, including replacing Adams and Madison elementary schools, improving Garry and Chase middle schools and North Central High School, improving option schools and designs for future projects on Balboa and Indian Trail Elementary Schools.

The failure of the bond “devastated” Adams Elementary principal Beth Nye, whose school is over 100 years old.

“Just knowing that our facilities need continual upgrades and that right now our voters are not in a place to support that … it’s pretty devastating and sad,” Nye said.

In recent history, the district has sought a bond every six years. The last time a bond failed in the district was in 1967, when voters turned down all three of the district’s tax collection ballot measures. After a reduction in the amount, the measures passed in a second election that year, according to The Spokesman-Review archives.

When failed, districts have the chance to amend their ballot items and call another special election. Spokane Public Schools board president Nikki Otero Lockwood said that’s not out of the question.

“Maybe the bond will come back as a standalone item in the future, but when that is and what that looks like is a lot to figure out,” she said.

Central Valley School District

Proposition No. 1: Educational Programs and Operations Levy

Too close to call

Yes: 51.7%

No: 48.3%

Passage of this ballot measure would authorize the renewal of property tax collections at an estimated rate of $2.40 per $1,000 in assessed property value for three years of collection totaling over $137 million. Levy funding, which voters have approved the last 50 years, constitutes 14% of the district’s budget.

Proposition No. 2: Capital Levy

Too close to call

Yes: 51.4%

No: 48.7%

Central Valley is also seeking a capital levy for the first time this year. The levy would tax property owners at an estimated rate of 39 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value. It would authorize the collection of $47.5 million over six years.

These taxes pay for secure entry vestibules, security system improvements, repairing roofs and sidewalks, upgrading heating and cooling systems and technology upgrades. Slated for improvements in the package are elementary schools of Adams, McDonald, Progress, University, Liberty Lake and South Pines, Bowdish and Greenacres middle schools, and Summit School and Spokane Valley Tech.

John Parker, superintendent of the Central Valley School District, said he and his staff feel a “tremendous obligation” to be transparent with the public about where the funding from the two levies will be used. He understands why those who did not support the levy may have had a hard time agreeing to additional taxes due to a variety of concerns, including their own financial hardships.

“I want to thank the voters and the wonderful Central Valley School District community,” Parker said. “There is obviously a lot of concern out there in our community and we’re going to do our absolute best to uphold transparency and be good financial stewards moving forward with the passing of these measures.”

Parker said part of the capital improvement levy will be used to pay for much-needed projects like student safety, roof repairs and heating and cooling system improvements. The remaining portion will go towards technological improvements across the district.

”Half of that levy is for technology, because technology is one of the biggest supporting tools for staff and students in our district,” Parker said.

Mead School District

Proposition No. 1: Educational Programs and Operations Levy

Too close to call

Yes: 51.7%

No: 48.4%

Mead property owners’ school tax bills would renew to a rate of $2.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value if their district’s levy passes. Passage would mean the collection of $91.6 million over three years. Levy funding constitutes around 13.6% of the district’s total budget.

Cheney Public Schools

Proposition No. 1: Educational Programs and Operations Levy


Yes: 55.1%

No: 44.9%

The first of Cheney Schools’ ballot measures, this levy would be renewed to an estimated rate of $1.97 per $1,000 of assessed property value and collect $51.2 million over three years. The greater levy makes up around 11% of the district’s budget.

Proposition No. 2: Bonds

Failed. Did not meet 60% threshold

Yes: 53.8%

No: 46.2%

The district is tried for a $72 million bond to pay for a list of projects, largely to address imminent overcrowding in the largest district by land in the county. Predicting a population boom on the horizon, the bond would pay for a new elementary school in Airway Heights, land for a future school and improvements to facilities of Salnave, Betz, Sunset and Windsor Elementary Schools and Cheney High School.

Proposition No. 3: Capital Levy


Yes: 57.9%

No: 42.1%

The smaller of the two levies, the capital levy is estimated to renew to 9 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value, around $2.3 million over three years. These funds are for technology and security upgrades districtwide.

Cheney School District Superintendent Ben Ferney said he was excited to see the pair of levies passed Tuesday.

“We have to thank the people who went out and exercised their right to vote, and those who supported our measures,” Ferney said. “We just have a really strong community out here that supports our students and children.”

If the bond does not pass, he will be working with the district’s board of directors to figure out how to address any concerns the public may have before it’s placed on the ballot again.

”We’re going to have to wait and see what happens and really discuss how we want to move forward, and see how we can gain community feedback and where some of their concerns may lie,” Ferney said.

East Valley School District

Proposition No. 1: Educational Programs and Operations Levy

Too close to call

Yes: 52.5%

No: 47.5%

East Valley asked voters to renew a levy for four years from 2025 to 2028, collecting $56.9 million in that span. The estimated rate per $1,000 of assessed property value in the first year of collection would be $2.06, $1.99 the second year and decreasing by a few cents in the next years. Levy dollars make up 17% of the district’s budget.

Brian Talbott, superintendent for the East Valley School District, said he was grateful to see levy measures seemingly passed in his own district as well as in several others in Spokane County, but he’s hopeful he’ll “feel a lot better after tomorrow’s count.”

“I’m grateful that we, as well as my colleagues and their districts and their students, are going to be able to maintain programs,” Talbott said. “That’s a good feeling across the region, but there’s a lot of work to do still.”

With results for almost every school district levy or bond measure falling around a 50/50 split, Talbott said he worries about what that says about the current contentious climate in the region and in the larger United States. He said he’s seen around 12 elections as a superintendent, and each one gets harder.

”Each one of these takes a little piece of me,” Talbott said. “The grind is hard, and we have to ask people for their support, but they have to keep their homes heated and food on the table. I mean, where does it end?”

Talbott said he would like to see a better system to secure funding for local schools, as the ask for voters seems to be growing tougher. He worries about the bond measure the district will put before voters in the coming years to improve their antiquated school facilities.

”We’re not supposed to be heavily reliant upon our local levies, but yet, we are,” Talbott said. “People are tired of having to pay more taxes, more taxes and more taxes.”

West Valley School District

Proposition No. 1: Educational Programs and Operations Levy


Yes: 54.5%

No: 45.5%

The levy will renew with an estimated rate of $2.44 per $1,000 of assessed value, following passage Tuesday.

The $20.1 million three-year measure will help to pay for a mix of educational, staffing, extracurricular and operations needs.

Proposition No. 2: Bond

Failed. Did not meet 60% threshold

Yes: 50.1%

No: 45.5%

This year’s was the district’s first attempt to pass a bond since 2003, when voters approved one to pay for the construction of a new West Valley High School.

West Valley Superintendent Kyle Rydell said he was encouraged voters supported renewing the levy, and added that the failure of the bond measure was a chance to take another look at how the district could meet the facility needs of the growing district. He did not speculate on when a similar measure would be put before the voters again.

“You kind of look at where the results came in and then you go back to the drawing board about how things are looking moving forward, what a Plan B or a Plan C might look like,” Rydell said.

Just like two decades ago, the more than $92 million bond on Tuesday’s ballot was intended to fund the construction of a new school. Centennial Middle School would have been replaced in the coming years, and a shared-campus building for West Valley City School and Spokane Valley High School would have been constructed.

The bond would have accounted for a $0.39 per thousand increase in property taxes for the next 21 years.

Deer Park School District

Proposition No. 1: Educational Programs and Operations Levy


Yes: 54.2%

No: 45.8%

Deer Park School District’s levy proposal was accepted and will renew an existing levy at the same rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property values. The levy is expected to bring in about $11 million to pay for some staff, extracurriculars like Future Farmers of America and technology improvements.

Proposition No. 2: Bond

Failed. Did not meet 60% threshold

Yes: 49.6%

No: 50.4%

The $62 million bond measure failed at the ballot box, halting plans for the construction of a new elementary school, a new transportation center, and renovations at Arcadia Elementary and Deer Park Middle School.

Medical Lake School District

Proposition No. 1: Educational Programs and Operation Levy

Too close to call

Yes: 51.6%

No: 48.4%

Proposition No. 2: Capital Levy


Yes: 53.9%

No: 46.1%

The Medical Lake School District sought voter approval to renew two levies totaling over $8.2 million over a three-year period. The smaller levy passed, while it’s too soon to gauge the fate of the larger levy.

Proposition No. 1, with an estimated rate of $1.55 per $1,000 of assessed property value, would allow the district secure more state funding than in years past. Assessed property values in the district increased by over 33% in 2022, resulting in lowered tax rates and less money collected for the schools, which brought the district below the $1.50 rate threshold needed to maximize matching funds from the state.

The larger levy would continue to fund the entirety of the district’s extracurriculars, as well as some staff members like school nurses, teachers and their mental health coordinator. The capital levy has an estimated rate of $0.45 per thousand, and will be directed primarily toward construction projects. The district intends to upgrade Medical Lake High School’s roof, finish a secure entrance to Medical Lake Middle School, replace heating and cooling systems and repair playground asphalt.

Medical Lake School District Superintendent Kim Headrick said she was feeling positive about the early results that indicated the levies will pass, and said the funding would allow the district to continue to support staff, students and their families. The levies will benefit the many students and families who have come to rely on the district’s behavioral and mental health services following the COVID-19 pandemic and the Gray fire.

Headrick said approval of the capital investment levy will allow them to do much-needed repairs that a bond measure would not be necessary for. She thinks the failure of some bond measures in the area could be due to voters weariness to invest in brand new facilities.

“I think it shows us that f we have the ability to repair the current buildings that we have, instead of new facilities, that is what the community is telling us we should do,” Headrick said. “The struggle is, that is not going to be sustainable long-term.”

Riverside School District

Proposition No. 1: Replacement Educational Programs and Operations Levy


Yes: 55.1%

No: 44.9%

Proposition No. 2: Bond

Failed. Did not meet 60% threshold

Yes: 50.5%

No: 49.6%

Proposition No. 1, intended to replace the current levy with a rate of $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value that will expire this year, was approved Tuesday. The levy rate is the lowest in any Spokane County school district, and has not been changed since first approved by voters in 2018. It provides roughly 12% of the annual budget.

The three-year measure will go toward staffing, supply and extracurricular costs, and will bring in more than $10.8 million to the district.

Voters rejected the roughly $73 million bond intended to pay for renovations at the district’s four schools, independent scholar’s program and preschool center.

All schools would have seen upgrades and modifications, including to the heating and cooling systems, security and classrooms. The 1,600-student district is outgrowing its facilities, expecting an enrollment increase of 30% over the next decade, Riverside superintendent Ken Russell told The Spokesman-Review earlier this year.

Nine Mile Falls School District

Proposition No. 1 – Replacement Educational Programs and Operation Levy

Too close to call

Yes: 52.1%

No: 47.9%

Voters in Stevens and Spokane counties passed the Nine Mile Falls School District’s nearly $13.6 million three-year measure that would replace an existing levy set to expire in December. The current levy accounts for roughly 14 to 17% of the district’s annual budget and is used in addition to state funding to meet needs like staffing, transportation and student safety.

The property tax put before voters Tuesday, estimated to be around $2.15 per $1,000 in assessed property value would be used to support programs like special education, fine arts and other extracurricular activities like sports. A portion of the funding is slated to be used for facility improvements like a new roof for Lakeside High School, energy efficient upgrades to meet state regulations and assorted maintenance needs.

Superintendent Jeff Baerwald said that in recent years, the district has focused on being transparent with the public about how the funding is used.

Great Northern School District

Proposition No. 1: Educational Programs and Operations Levy


Yes: 69%

No: 31%

Spokane County’s smallest school district, with only 40 students, sought a renewal of their levy to pay for school equipment and staffing. The levy accounts for 22% of the total operating budget of the only school in the district, a 110-year-old brick building that houses three classes of kindergarten through sixth grade students.

The levy will allow the district to keep three teachers employed, rather than reducing it to two classes: one for kindergarteners through third graders and one for fourth through sixth graders. The levy rate is estimated to be $1.03 per $1000 in assessed property value; the district will collect a total of $840,000 over three years beginning 2025.

Reporter Roberta Simonson contributed to this article.