Olympia School District voters are being asked in Tuesday’s election to approve a property tax levy for safety and technology upgrades.
The measure is designed to collect $35.4 million over four years starting in 2019. This is a reasonable request and needed to keep students on track for success in an Internet-based 21st century economy.
The replacement levy is much larger than the old one, but due to K-12 school finance changes made by the Legislature voters can approve the levy and still see their school-related property-tax rates drop from 2017 levels.
Also on the Feb. 13 ballot is a $76 million bond request by Yelm Community Schools for school construction. This money will pay for new middle school, to rebuild two elementary schools, put an addition on at a third to replace numerous portables with classrooms, and make safety improvements. The district has not passed a bond since 2003, despite heavy growth in enrollment. Smaller bond proposals in 2015 and 2016 failed to get the needed 60 percent yes vote.
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Higher construction costs have driven up the price, but like the Olympia levy the effect of the bond would not raise tax rates above 2017 levels.
It is important that voters realize that state changes in school funding last year did not end the need in Olympia and Yelm for local funds. In response to the McCleary court case, the state Legislature eliminated some levies but fell short of full funding – especially for technology. School construction has long been financed by a mix of state and local money.
The Olympia funds help extend the district’s “digital immersion” project district-wide. It brings all Olympia students into the 21st century by ensuring that everyone – rich or poor – has access to a computer.
The Olympia levy also has money to train teachers to utilize classroom technology with the biggest impact on learning.
Under the Olympia plan, each school will have one computer per student for grades 3-12 and every middle- and high-school student will be able to check out a basic laptop to take home at night to do homework. Along with online curriculum this can reduce the need to lug heavy textbooks and prepare students for the realities of work in a “wired” society. Funds also will buy technology that helps students with various disabilities.
The district’s chief information officer Marc Elliott is developing ways to provide internet access to kids whose families don’t have it. The district is moving carefully with pilot programs at select schools, but it is moving smartly to cover all schools in four years.
Just as state school reform was meant to provide equity in education opportunity across the state, this digital immersion effort may finally equalize the technology opportunities within the district.
The Olympia levy also pays for security upgrades on school buses that include digital radios that work in current communication dead zones and key cards to track students getting on and off buses. It also pays for new intercom systems in schools for emergency communications.
The levy for technology would be unnecessary if the state Legislature had chosen to include a new, more expansive definition of technology in its funding reforms, but lawmakers did not. Voters should fix that oversight.
Yes on the Olympia Home Fund
Olympia voters also are being asked to support a small increase in sales taxes to build permanent housing. Proposition 1 is meant to get more homeless people off the street by providing a roof over the heads of the most vulnerable individuals, many of whom have mental illness or other disabilities.
The measure is also known as the Olympia Home Fund, and as we noted in our Jan. 19 editorial, voters should support it.
The proposal would increase the sales tax rate by a tenth of a percent, or one penny per $10 purchase. That would raise more than $2 million a year. The funds would be distributed as grants to organizations that build or renovate affordable housing units and also for mental health facilities, shelter or other services.
The goal is to leverage the money with state and federal funds to provide 350 units of housing over 10 years. A special fund is created to hold the money and its use by the city will have additional scrutiny by a community board.
The housing proposal is one of many good steps that our South Sound community is taking to humanely address the homelessness crisis on our streets.
Please support Prop. 1 and the Home Fund to keep that work going forward.