Perhaps you’ve seen the bright yellow “Yes: Schools” campaign signs, banners and buttons throughout Thurston County.
Educators and supporters in Thurston County’s eight public school districts are working together to send a clear and consistent message that they need voter support in the Feb. 9 special election.
“Not only (does) it save money, but at the same time, it brings us together,” Raj Manhas, superintendent of North Thurston Public Schools, said of the campaign collaboration. “Kids are kids. It doesn’t matter where they live. We’re all here to support kids.”
And with nearly $646 million in local funding at stake in Thurston County, school district leaders hope their message won’t be lost amid all the discussion and headlines about how state lawmakers are working on a plan to fully fund school districts because of the McCleary court decision.
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“Some will ask, so why do we need levies anymore?” said John Bash, superintendent of the Tumwater School District, which has the renewal of a nearly $65 million maintenance and operations levy on the ballot. “And the simple answer is that the state has not fully funded education.”
In fact, the state budget director said Thursday that lawmakers will not finish the work required to fix the way Washington pays for public schools during this legislative session.
“It’s very confusing for voters, I think,” said Dick Cvitanich, superintendent of the Olympia School District, which has a 20-year, $160.7 million construction bond measure on the ballot.
Every Thurston County school district is asking voters to approve four-year maintenance and operations levies that pay for ongoing expenses, and two districts — Olympia and Yelm — also have construction bond measures on the ballot. Yelm’s bond request is similar to the $53.9 million measure that received more than half “yes” votes about a year ago, but fell short of 60 percent approval rate needed.
What’s the difference between a levy and a bond? Both are property taxes, but in general terms, levies cover expenses for learning while bonds pay for construction. Local levies pay for paraeducator salaries, curriculum and special education, as well as operational costs such as transportation, custodial services and maintenance.
All of the levy measures on this year’s ballot are renewals of existing levies that are scheduled to expire in 2016. They require a simple majority, or 50 percent plus one, of “yes” votes to pass.
In most districts, local property tax levies bring in 15 to 21 percent of the revenue for districts’ annual operating budgets. State and federal money make up the rest.
Bonds are longer term tax debts that generate money for building; both Olympia and Yelm officials say they need money for construction projects that will help accommodate their growing enrollments and replace outdated facilities. Bonds require a super majority of 60 percent “yes” votes in an election to pass.
“The enrollment projections are for us to grow by around 1,400 (more students) over the next 10 years,” Cvitanich said.
Pair the growth with the voter-approved Initiative 1351 to lower class sizes across the state and the district has an even bigger need for more classrooms, particularly in grades kindergarten through third grade, he said.
“Where do those students go when you reduce the class size?” he said. “You could argue, ‘We’re going to have 36 kids in a first-grade classroom and we’re going to put two teachers in there with them. … We don’t want to do that, and our citizens committee said we don’t want that to happen.”
Both districts have older schools where space is at a premium. For example, at Centennial Elementary School in southeast Olympia, the band class rotates between the music room it shares with the orchestra, the gymnasium it shares with physical education classes, and the multipurpose room that’s also used as the lunch room.
Before each class, the band teacher and students move chairs, music stands and a piano to the right location.
“It’s a combination of teacher power and kid power to get the room set up,” Principal Shannon Ritter said during a tour of the school last fall. The school also has reached the maximum number of portables that can fit on its campus, officials say.
The bond would fund about $71.5 million in remodeling projects at McLane, Roosevelt and Centennial elementary schools. The projects are eligible for about $12 million in state matching construction grants.
The Olympia district also plans to use $29.4 million for additional classrooms at McLane, Roosevelt, Centennial, Pioneer and Hansen elementary schools. Each school would receive a permanent two-story mini-building with classrooms that are not part of the remodeling projects.
In addition to adding classroom space, the mini-buildings would help the district reduce its use of portable classroom buildings, school district spokeswoman Susan Gifford said.
An additional $24.3 million would be used to replace portables at Olympia High School with a new, expanded building. The two-story building would feature 22 classrooms including science labs, administration space, and a commons area behind the stadium and baseball fields.
In Yelm, at Southworth Elementary School, district officials have come up with some creative ways to adjust to growing pains: There are 14 portable classrooms on campus; students are served lunch during seven shifts; and a table and chairs have transformed a storage area filled with boxes and bins into a learning space for reading groups.
“When they have a school assembly, they have to do it in shifts because they can’t get all of the kids in one area,” said Andy Wolf, superintendent of Yelm Community Schools.
But even with those changes, the district has to bus some students to another school across town, he said.
The district has simply run out of room for students at several of its sites, Wolf said. “We have about 80 portables outside our schools right now,” he said.
Wolf said the district has grown by about 850 students since its last bond was approved in 2003. And with new housing developments attracting younger families, more students are expected to fill Yelm’s schools, Wolf said.
“By 2020, we’re supposed to grow by another 900 students,” he said.
If the measure is approved, the district would be eligible for about $41 million in state construction funding that would allow it to rebuild Southworth on the existing site; replace Yelm Middle School, which was built in 1966 and remodeled in 1984; make some upgrades at Prairie Elementary School, which was built in 1985 with the “open concept” design without interior doors; and construct a new building that would serve as a ninth-grade campus next to the high school.
The ninth-grade campus is a concept that’s been implemented at schools across the country, Wolf said. In Washington state, the Snoqualmie Valley School District operates a freshman campus at Mount Si High School.
Ninth-graders would move out of the middle school and have access to career-technical education programs, advanced math and other courses on the high school campus. But keeping them on a ninth-grade campus for the majority of their time helps keep them a little more sheltered and allows them to ease into the rigors of high school, district officials say.
Across the country, ninth-grade-only programs have seen increases in student performance, and decreases in drop-outs and discipline issues, Wolf said.
At the same time, sixth-graders would move up to the middle schools, which would create more spots in elementary schools across the district, he said.
If the measure is not approved, Wolf said the district will need to figure out a way to adjust to growth.
“If it fails, we’ll probably need to make some major boundary decisions,” he said. “...The tipping point has come, and we don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Wolf said one of the district’s biggest challenges with the bond is that it’s a bedroom community that heavily depends on mom and pop businesses and homeowners for tax revenue. It’s not an easy sell.
Tony Houser, 49, who lives in unincorporated Thurston County near Yelm, said he hasn’t decided yet how he’ll vote on the bond.
“I’m a firm believer as a responsible society we should educate our children, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “You know the American taxpayers, they’re getting stretched so hard right now. I’m not saying I’m against it, because I’m certainly not. But the thing is, man, where do you draw the line? Those of us who have been giving, have been giving a lot.”
Houser said doesn’t agree with the formula schools use to raise money.
“I find it just amazing that everyone in the community can vote to raise my property taxes,” he said. “The community as a whole should pay for it, like maybe in the form of a sales tax, in that community just for that levy. … I love kids just as much as anyone else, it’s just I would like to see it be more of a fair-based system.”
Wolf said the district has held about 28 events during the past year to get its message out about the need for money to build new facilities.
“We’re optimistic,” he said. “We have some people say, ‘You didn’t pass, why are you running again?’ And we just say, ‘Our needs are getting worse.’ ”
School district requests
Here are details of the various school district levy and bond measures on Thurston County’s Feb. 9 ballot:
Griffin: 4-year, $9.15 million maintenance and operations levy. If approved, homeowners would pay about $2.19 to $2.33 per $1,000 of assessed property value annually through 2020. Levy dollars provide funding for about 29 percent of the K-8 district’s annual budget, according to a district fact sheet. For more information, contact superintendent and principal Greg Woods at 360-866-5903 or go to griffinschool.us.
North Thurston: 4-year, $163.5 million M&O levy. If approved, homeowners would annually pay about $3.57 to $3.66 per $1,000 of assessed property value through 2020. For a $250,000 home in 2017, that’s about $892.50 per year, according to a district fact sheet. Levy funding pays for about 21 percent of the district’s budget. For more information, go to nthurston.k12.wa.us.
Olympia: 4-year, $106.8 million M&O levy. If approved, homeowners would annually pay $3.06 to $3.12 per $1,000 assessed property value through 2020. For more information, go to osd.wednet.edu.
Olympia: 20-year, $160.7 million construction bond. If approved, in 2018, when the bond sales occur, the measure would authorize the district to collect about 50 cents more per $1,000 assessed value than it did in 2015. The owner of a $250,000 home would pay about $58 more per year for the bond and levy combined. For more information, go to osd.wednet.edu.
Rainier: 4-year, $6.76 million M&O levy. If approved, property owners would annually pay $3.66 to $3.77 per $1,000 of assessed property value through 2020. Local levy funds make up about 18 percent of the district’s budget. For more information, call superintendent Tim Garchow at 360-446-2207.
Rochester: 4-year, $16.3 million M&O levy. If approved, property owners would pay $3.89 per $1,000 assessed value from 2017 to 2020. The district would also qualify for nearly $1 million in levy equalization funds from the state. The funding is available to communities that have a low tax base due to a lack of industry. For more information, call superintendent Kim Fry at 360-273-9242 ext. 1006.
Tenino: 4-year, about $12.14 million M&O. If approved, property owners would annually pay $3.23 to $3.32 per $1,000 assessed value through 2020. Levy dollars provide about 20 percent of the district’s budget. If the measure passes, Tenino School District will be eligible for about $250,000 in levy equalization funds from the state. The funding is available to communities that have a low tax base due to a lack of industry. For more information, go to teninoschools.org.
Tumwater: 4-year, $64.96 million M&O levy. If approved, homeowners would annually pay about $3.35 to $3.45 per $1,000 assessed property value through 2020. For a $250,000 home, the annual tax rate would be about $845 in 2018, according to a district fact sheet. Levy funding provides about 19 percent of the district’s budget. For more information, call 360-709-7000 or go to tumwater.k12.wa.us.
Yelm: 4-year, $45.9 million M&O levy. If approved, homeowners would annually pay $3.94 to $4.01 per assessed $1,000 valuation through 2020. The district also will qualify for about $3 million in levy equalization funds allocated by the state. For more information, call superintendent Andy Wolf at 360-458-1900 or go to ycs.wednet.edu/levy-bond.
Yelm: 21-year, $59.5 million bond. If approved, homeowners could expect a tax rate increase of about $1 per $1,000 assessed value, according to a district fact sheet. The district would receive about $41 million in state assistance for the construction projects. For more information, call superintendent Andy Wolf at 360-458-1900 or go to ycs.wednet.edu/levy-bond.