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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public Schools discusses next steps at first school board meeting since bond failure

District officials meet at the district office downtown just before a regular school board meeting on Feb. 21, 2024, to discuss next steps after their bond failed.   (Elena Perry/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

An already-crowded November ballot in Spokane may also feature another go at a Spokane Public Schools bond after last week’s first such failure for the district in over 50 years.

But school officials say first they need to figure out how to make another financial ask palatable to avoid a repeat at the polls.

At a special meeting before the district’s Wednesday school board meeting, district officials discussed what their next steps should be following the recent bond failure.

A bond could return to ballots as early as November, though it may look a little different than this year’s $200 million ask to pay for a predetermined list of construction projects, including replacing Adams and Madison elementary schools.

“The needs of kids at Madison and Adams and Garry Middle School and the other schools that were on that ballot, they experienced those needs today when they went to school,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said. “They didn’t go away.”

After sifting through feedback, the district may rethink the proposals they send to ballots. To fund technology, safety and smaller construction projects, districts can seek a capital levy or include these expenditures in a bond ask.

In recent years, the Spokane district has opted for the latter strategy. The bond failure may spur a change, Swinyard said.

“It doesn’t have to be the way we’ve always done it,” he said, referring to the district’s consistent schedule of seeking an educational operations and programs levy every three years, a bond every six.

While it will ultimately be the school board’s decision on when and how items appear on ballots, Swinyard proposed a hypothetical schedule including seeking a capital levy, which requires simple majority of voter approval, compared to the daunting 60% a bond needs to pass.

The district may remove items in the first proposal that could be paid for through a capital levy and rerun the bond in November at a lower dollar amount. To pay for the capital projects removed from the bond, they may later run a capital levy, perhaps in 2027 when they ask voters to approve a renewal on the educational programs and operations levy. The levies would be two separate ballot items.

In the meantime, they can use $50 million leftover from the 2018 bond to pay for technology, safety and security, and smaller projects that emerge as time passes.

Swinyard estimated this remaining cash could last the district two to three years. Should a boiler break or a school roof spring a leak, the district is in a “good place” to pay for emergent repairs.

“That gives us some cushion,” said district senior advisor Mark Anderson. “If we waited till ‘27, we’ve got enough there to do our care and feeding of schools.”

Cindy Coleman, chief business and finance officer with the district, estimated annual capital projects cost around $6 million, plus another “several” million for technology that could be financed through a capital levy, rather than a bond.

The hypothetical schedule requires the school board’s final approval to head to ballots. The district will be soliciting community feedback on which elements of the bond may have been unappealing.

Through several surveys, focus groups, presence at neighborhood councils and door knocking, district officials brainstormed ways to reach voters to gauge their appetite and spread information on their tax ask.

“I just want to know,” board member Melissa Bedford said. “I want to be able to talk to people and find out, you know, why?”

Initial feedback Swinyard said he’d received pointed to two clear answers: the economy and misinformation online.

Rising property values and inflation led many to shudder at the near half-billion-dollar total tax ask from the 30,000-pupil district. Aware of the economic landscape, Swinyard said in an interview Thursday that the district whittled down projects that would have been funded under the failed $200 million bond from a greater list totaling around $400 million.

Inaccuracies over the tax amounts and false claims about past levy collections were common online, Swinyard said Thursday.

“We really believe deeply in our role to share factual information and to confront the realities,” Swinyard said. “But the amount of misinformation on apps like Nextdoor is really concerning for what that means for our community.”

Board president Nikki Otero Lockwood suggested the active campaign against school tax proposals on the part of the Spokane County Republican Central Committee, which sent out texts urging a ‘No’ vote on Spokane Public Schools, Central Valley and Mead schools’ ballot measures.

She said this was a symptom of a national trend to defund public education.

“There were a couple of different factors, but that was one that we hadn’t seen before,” Lockwood said.

“I just hope we can get over that partisan thing, because it has not been like that in the past.”