Spokane Public Schools say levy is critical for quality education, but some question timing

The fate of Spokane Public Schools’ replacement levy may well boil down to public trust, and to what degree that trust has been strained by rising budgets and the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Feb. 9, Spokane voters will be asked to approve a three-year, $221.6 million levy that the district says will fill gaps not covered by the state, such as nurses, counselors, special education and other programs.

Ballots will be mailed to voters by Jan. 21. Spokane Public Schools is one of more than a dozen school districts in Spokane County that have placed tax measures on the February ballot.

The district’s message is simple: This is a replacement levy, not a new one; the total education burden for Spokane taxpayers will be lower than it was three years ago; and even with passage, the district will continue to seek cost reductions.

“It’s foundational to the educational experiences we provide our students,” said Superintendent Adam Swinyard, who points with pride to last year’s record-high graduation rate of 89.2{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} and national recognition for the district’s response to the pandemic.

The district’s overarching message: We’ve successfully navigated a year of unprecedented challenges. Moreover, thanks to the rollout of vaccines and the accelerated return of students, the worst is over – so please trust us to finish the job.

“This is about the future, and coming back stronger and ready to face the challenges ahead,” Swinyard said.

The district also has worked hard to spread the message to voters, through webinars and emails.

“We’ve tried very hard to be transparent about what this means for our students and our community,” Swinyard said.

Officially known as an educational programs and operation levy, it would replace the $106 million levy that expires next year. If approved, it would cost taxpayers up to $2.40 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2021, 5 cents more the following year and $2.50 in the final year.

For a home assessed at $300,000, that comes out to $720, $735 and $750 per year, respectively.

If the levy is approved, the overall education tax burden for Spokane County taxpayers would rise from $7.02 per thousand this year to $7.40 in 2022, $7.45 the following year and $7.50 per thousand in 2024.

Homeowners paid far more than that as recently as 2018, before the McCleary decision forced the state – essentially taxpayers in wealthier Puget Sound districts – to assume a greater burden of the cost of public education.

In 2018, the total rate was $8.46, and the local levy was $3.79.

Spokane voters have routinely given overwhelming support to levies, which require only a simple majority for passage. No levy has failed since 1978.

Approval rates topped 80{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} at the turn of the millennium before falling into the 60s during the recession. The 2018 levy was backed by a 73{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} majority.

Much has changed since then.

COVID-19 has wracked the economy, throwing many taxpayers out of work and some parents are disillusioned at Spokane’s slow pace of returning students, especially after last month’s revised guidance from Gov. Jay Inslee, which indicated a more aggressive approach would have made little difference for in-school transmission rates.

“Families are struggling,” said Joanna Hyatt, co-leader Open Spokane Schools, a group that has sought since the summer to bring all students back into classrooms.

“When I heard there was going to be a levy, it seemed out-of-touch and a bit tone-deaf after what parents are going through,” Hyatt said. “Trust has been broken with parents.”

Swinyard and district officials say the replacement levy is more important than ever because low-income students are suffering most because of COVID-related school closures.

However, critics contend it was the district’s cautious return to distance learning that has wrought the most damage to needy students and their families.

“Kids are slipping through the cracks,” Hyatt said.

However, on Friday, Francisco Velazquez of Spokane Regional Health District defended the district’s decision.

“I think at that time, based on the complexities, their approach was very much in line with the guidance,” Velazquez said.

Tim Kestell, co-chair of Citizens for Spokane Schools, said while some parents may be frustrated by decisions the district made in the face of a pandemic, supporting the levy is the best way to ensure the district is strong as students get back inside classrooms.

“What a shame to send these kids to school and say, ‘I’m sorry, kids, we don’t have band this year because we didn’t pass a levy.’ ”

Some critics say district expenditures have outpaced citizens’ ability to pay, and they disagree with the district’s definition of what constitutes basic education and question the district’s higher expenditure per student.

According to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, per-pupil expenditure at Spokane Public Schools was $14,780 in the 2018-19 school year.

That’s higher than neighboring districts. By comparison, Central Valley spent $13,395 and Mead $13,009.

Moreover, enrollment has been flat for several years, yet Spokane’s budget increased from 20.9{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} between 2016-17 and 2019-20 and is projected to increase another 11.4{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} from 2019-20 to 2023-24.

The increases were driven partly by an increase in teacher and staff salaries in 2018, but mostly by overall increase in personnel costs amid worsening poverty throughout the city.

Indeed, there is a strong correlation between per-pupil expenditures and poverty. Spokane’s poverty rate in 2019 was 59.6{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}, while Central Valley’s is only 37{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}.

Coincidentally or not, at the Freeman School District the poverty rate (24.8{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}) and per-student cost ($12,323) are both the lowest in Spokane County.

Statewide, the Seattle school district pays much more – $16,753, though the cost of living is higher. Likewise, Tacoma’s poverty rate of 60{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} is almost identical to that of Spokane, but it spends $15,724 per student.

Part of the debate revolves around the issue of how wide a safety net should be cast by public schools, and what exactly constitutes “basic education.”

For example, the state funds only five nurses for Spokane, a district with about 30,000 students; levies pay for the other 36.

Also covered in the current levy are 20 counselors, 36 custodians, 32 technology specialists and at least 20 other personnel.

Levy funds also support smaller class sizes and extracurricular activities such as athletics, art, music and drama.

Kestell said he is concerned about misinformation in the community about what the levy will fund and directed voters to the Spokane Public Schools website if they are confused.

Should the levy fail, Swinyard warned the district would be “unrecognizable.”

However, Swinyard expected the district would make another attempt later in the year, presumably with a lower tab.

In an email, Swinyard also emphasized the 2020-21 budget was adopted with a budget deficit of $11.7 million and that the use of fund balance can sustain programs for a limited time.

Russell Neff, another leader of the Open Spokane Schools group, nevertheless believes the district has been overspending.

“We can’t afford a Cadillac education, because this is a poor city in many respects,” said Neff, a former substitute teacher with the district.

The mission of the district is education, not social work and parenting, said Neff, who added he is skeptical about the timing of the district’s announcement last week that all students would return to in-person learning. It’s intended to assuage voters, especially parents of school-age children, Neff said.

Spokane resident Steve Blaska, a retired operations director at Spokane Transit Authority, objects to the size of the increase.

“Now is not the time to increase the local levy rate to the maximum,” Blaska said. “Homeowners and renters are struggling to pay housing costs. Business owners are struggling to recover from COVID recession.”

Kestell said a quality education costs money. He pointed to efforts the district is making to lower class sizes, an initiative that includes adding three new middle schools.

“A vote ‘yes’ is a way for people to say, ‘We support strong schools,’ ” he said. “This is a great opportunity to keep Spokane moving forward in the right direction.”

Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.

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