Levies' failure, not passage, carries real costs

Tuesday is a pivotal day for school districts in South Sound. It's the deadline for submitting ballots for the all-important school levy election.

The Olympian’s editorial board strongly encourages voters to support their local public schools by voting “yes.”

Levies have become a pivotal part of every district’s budget, paying for additional classroom teachers and support staffers; for transportation and extracurricular activities; for special and gifted education. The simple truth is that the state does not pay the costs of a basic education. Federal dollars are a pittance. That puts the burden on local taxpayers to fill the gap through local levy dollars. There is a wide disparity of funding across this state. Wealthy districts can ask for more levy dollars and provide students with amenities not available to less-fortunate districts.

The Centralia, Griffin, North Thurston, Rainier, Rochester, Tenino and Tumwater school districts have routine, two-year levies on Tuesday’s ballot. These are replacement levies – not new taxes. They simply replace the routine maintenance and operation levies that expire in each of the school districts at year’s end.

Most districts are asking for about the same amount of money they are collecting this year.

Tumwater voters, for example, approved a levy rate of $2.33 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for this year. The ballot in the hands of Tumwater voters for the next two years sets a levy rate of $2.43. The amount of money raised via property taxes next year will be $11.7 million, jumping to $12.4 million in 2012 – close to the $11.8 million raised through the levy this year.

Many voters, especially those who have seen reductions in their property values as a result of the economic recession, will pay less in school levy taxes in the next two years than they pay today.

North Thurston Public Schools, with 13,043 students, is the largest school district in South Sound. The proposed levy for the next two years – $2.55 per $1,000 of assessed valuation – will raise $27.5 million in 2011 and $28.8 million in 2012. If the governor’s budget proposal passes the Legislature, the North Thurston district will rely on levy dollars for 21 percent of its 2010-11 school year budget. That shows just how important levies are to individual districts, yet 90 percent of North Thurston taxpayers will pay less in school levy property taxes next year than they are paying this year.

The Olympia and Yelm school districts are in the middle of voter-approved four-year maintenance and operation levies. Yelm voters have no school district issues on Tuesday’s ballot.

But members of the Olympia School Board have asked their voters to approve a four-year, $25.3 million construction and technology levy. The district’s voter-approved technology levy will expire at year’s end.

The capital projects levy will raise $15.5 million for construction projects, including upgrades to Capital High School’s roof to bring it up to city code ($5.5 million); heating and ventilation system replacements and upgrades at Centennial, Brown and Lincoln elementary schools and Jefferson and Marshall middle schools ($3 million); an $800,000 re-roof and repair to the old John Rogers Elementary School site, which houses the district’s online program; and program improvements and modernizations to Jefferson Middle School ($500,000). Nearly $10 million will be collected for the district’s technology needs, including $3 million for new and replacement hardware and tools for the classroom, $1 million in classroom software and teacher training, and about $2.6 million for network and telephone upgrades.

When the economy is good and workers are seeing steady increases in their wages, it’s easy to support public education. Most people recognize that a solid K-12 education is the foundation upon which successful lives are built.

But this is another gut-check year. The economy has stalled. Economists say the recovery from the two-year recession will be slow, and Congress and the president are struggling to put more money into the pockets of Americans in hopes of boosting the rebound.

The reality is that the cost of education is going up, and school districts have been forced to repeatedly slash their budgets. Salaries for teachers have been frozen, there’s no money for class-size reductions and districts throughout Thurston County have been forced to make painful reductions. The public is demanding more from public education in terms of preparing students for life beyond the classroom. School districts are forced to meet that added demand with fewer financial resources.

The simple truth is that Washington lawmakers have not lived up to their constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education. They are slighting parents and students by cutting corners and changing funding formulas. Levy dollars are desperately needed by school districts to make up the difference between what the state pays and what it actually costs to run quality local schools.

And that’s the bottom line. Thurston County voters who recognize that quality schools are a key ingredient to a quality community should support the various levy requests with a favorable vote Tuesday.