Thurston County voters sent a clear message this past week in support of their local K-12 schools, agreeing to put money where their mouths are.
All eight Thurston County school districts put maintenance and operations levies on the ballot Tuesday. In every one, voters said yes – passing the property-tax levies by large, in some cases resounding margins.
The only setback was in Yelm. Voters approved the levy for Yelm Community Schools but rejected a $59.5 million bond proposal that would have added classroom space to accommodate the district’s fast-growing enrollment. It was the second such loss in two years for Yelm, leaving questions about how to move forward.
The bond drew majority support, but needed 60 percent approval.
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Yelm superintendent Andy Wolf said the district must look for ways it can fit students into existing space in the short run, which could require a reconfiguration of grades to create more space in elementary schools.
Elsewhere in South Sound, the results were pretty stunning with all other districts getting more than 60 percent for levies. And in Olympia, the four-year, $106.8 million replacement levy for operations and maintenance was passing by a nearly three-to-one margin. Assuming those numbers hold up, that is the highest margin of victory for an Olympia school-tax proposal since at least 2000.
A remarkable 71 percent of Olympia voters also gave a thumbs up to a $160.7 million bond measure that allows several renovation and expansion projects.
“They were pretty good numbers,” observed Alan Burke, executive director for the Washington State School Directors’ Association, which represents school boards statewide. He said news across the state was generally positive, though some bond issues were failing. “I think it shows that people love their local schools.”
Olympia’s 20-year bond package pays for a new 22-classroom building at Olympia High, a new theater at Capital High, two-story “mini-buildings at the McLane, Roosevelt, Centennial, Pioneer and Hansen elementaries; it also ensures every elementary school has security cameras.
The bond also pays to renovate and expand Avanti High School. Other funds let the district move central offices into The Olympian’s building after the district and building owner close that deal.
Passage of levies lets all eight districts avoid staff layoffs that would have meant larger class sizes and a step backward in 2017.
School leaders, supporters and local voters have done their job. Now it’s up to our Legislature to create a plan that phases out Washington’s reliance on voter-approved levies to subsidize basic education operations.
The Washington Supreme Court ruled in 2012 in the McCleary case that the state was failing to meet its paramount constitutional duty – to fully fund basic education. At the heart of the decision was the state’s excessive reliance on levies that provide much different levels of support district to district – with property-rich districts and their students having more resources than those in relatively poorer districts such as Yelm.
Voters didn’t say it, but we will: Get cracking, lawmakers. The court is watching.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial was corrected to show that the amount of the Olympia school operations levy is $106.8 million over four years.