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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rural school districts overwhelmingly passed their levies in Tuesday’s election, even as Spokane’s bond failed

Almira School counsellor Dana Parrish guides her children Honor and True on their way to the first day of school Tuesday, Sept 5, 2023. The rural Lincoln County community passed an educational programs and operation levy by 81% in the Feb. 13, 2024, special election.   (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

While support for school bonds and levies has declined in the Spokane area, levies are overwhelmingly passing in rural, more conservative districts surrounding Spokane County in initial counting for Tuesday’s special election.

Of districts in Adams, Ferry, Lincoln, Stevens and Whitman counties, the only levy that failed was in the Colville School District.

While none of the districts in these counties ran bonds in this election, most levies had robust support of over 60%. Some passed with upward of 70-80% of the vote. Levies in Washington only need a simple majority to pass.

These rural areas are more conservative than the Spokane area and consistently vote Republican. In Spokane County, the Republican Party actively campaigned against school levies.

Jim Kowalkowski, a former Davenport superintendent who directs a statewide coalition of small school districts called the Rural Education Center, said small towns tend to have stronger connections to their schools.

Although there are some organizations at the state level that oppose school levies, such as the Washington Policy Center, Kowalkowski said he is unaware of any local organized efforts in rural districts.

Colville Superintendent Kevin Knight said there was no local campaign opposing the levy, but the district hasn’t passed a bond or capital levy since 1990.

The Colville capital levy for safety, security and technology improvements failed with 45.6% of the vote. The proposed levy rate was $1 per $1,000 of taxable value, and would have paid for upgrading entrances, communication systems and adding HVACs.

The district’s schools, which date between 1940 and 1993, need improvements, Knight said. These buildings were built before the Columbine High School massacre and need better security at the entrances.

Knight said he appreciates the democratic process.

“As a school district, we can learn from that,” Knight said. “We can look at other school districts that were successful.”

The district could consider other funding options, such as grants, he said.

Knight pointed out that all of the other levies that passed in Stevens County were replacement levies, not new taxes.

“No one wants new taxes. Inflation is high, assessed property values are skyrocketing.”

The closest race in the rural counties is for the Reardan-Edwall School District, based in Lincoln County with boundaries overlapping in unincorporated west Spokane County. Its $2 per $1,000 replacement operation levy is passing by just 51.7%.

Approval for the levy is much higher in Lincoln County, where it is passing by 64.8%, compared to Spokane County, where it is failing with 43.6%.

The next ballot count is expected Thursday afternoon.

The school district with the highest passing rate was Steptoe, a small K-8 school district in Whitman County whose replacement operations levy passed by 83.5%.

Steptoe Superintendent Eric Patton said the district usually has no problem passing operation levies at around 80%.

“The school is center point of the community,” Patton said. “I think in our smaller communities, politics is less a part of it.”

He said partisanship in the wider discourse is starting to hurt children and their education.

Another strong example in Whitman County is the Pullman School District. The district passed two replacement levies at 74% and 78%.

For all districts in Washington, 91.4% of operations levies, 84.6% of capital levies and 33.3% of bonds were passing Tuesday night, according to a preliminary election summary by D.A. Davidson, an investment banking company that helps school districts with public finance.

“It is gratifying to still see strong support for public schools across the state,” Kowalkowski said.

Levies are important for school funding, he said, because even after the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision ordered the Legislature to fully fund basic education 12 years ago, school districts are still using levy dollars to back-fill what the state doesn’t provide. Districts are grappling with inflation, loss of pandemic-era funding, loss of enrollment and paying teachers competitive salaries.

“Put all those together,” Kowalkowski said, “and school districts are struggling big time.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.