Battle Ground divided over school levy

Backers say failure will devastate district, city; foes decry tax increase

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

Published:

 
photoA sign advocating for a "yes" vote on an upcoming Battle Ground school levy in front of a home on Northeast 117th Avenue near Prairie High School.

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photoBattle Ground Chamber of Commerce Chairman Mike Harden attends a meeting at Cedars on Salmon Creek. One topic of discussion was the recent failure of a maintenance and operations levy for Battle Ground Public Schools.

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What’s next: Battle Ground Public Schools’ levy request

Clark County Elections Office mailed ballots to district voters last week. Voters will have until 8 p.m. April 23 to return their ballots to the county.

What would the levy cost?

• Current levy

2013: $22.6 million, which costs taxpayers an estimated $4.25 per $1,000 of assessed property value. For the owner of a $200,000 home, that costs $70.83 per month, or $850 annually.

• Levy request

2014: $24.4 million, which would cost taxpayers an estimated $4.49 per $1,000 of assessed property value. For the owner of a $200,000 home, this will cost $74.83 per month ($4 more per month than the 2013 levy) or $898 per year ($48 more per year than the 2013 levy).

2015: $25.4 million, for an estimated $4.52 per $1,000.

2016: $26.3 million, for an estimated $4.51 per $1,000.

2017: $27.3 million, for an estimated $4.46 per $1,000.

BATTLE GROUND — Print shop owner Mike Harden recognizes administrators at Battle Ground Public Schools are in a difficult position.

Stuck between the irresistible force of increasing education costs and the immovable object of a voter base disinclined to support maintenance and operations levies, the school district's current attempt at passing a property tax increase has the community taking sides. Supporters cite the need for the programs the levy provides and the economic benefits it brings to the town; opponents talk about wasteful spending and a request to increase taxes when many families are stuck with stagnant incomes.

Harden, chairman of the 16-member Battle Ground Chamber of Commerce and the city's planning commission, said the levy has become a divisive issue during its second pass at district voters. They'll decide April 23 whether to OK the M&O levy after voting it down on Feb. 12.

At stake: Between $16 million and $17 million for the next school year, along with the district's $4.4 million share of state-match dollars that only go to levy-subsidized districts. Money from Washington's levy equalization fund is filtered down to property-poor school districts, such as Battle Ground's.

"From a business standpoint, the failure of the levy doesn't make

any sense at all because of what would follow it," said Harden, the owner of Battle Ground Printing. "It would only damage property owners."

As he sees it, the city's reputation is on the line, as well as the potential for future business development. Of the 41 school districts across the state to bring an M&O levy before voters in February, Battle Ground's was the only one to fail.

While pro-levy signs have begun gracing the sides of roads and empty lots in recent weeks, the consensus among Battle Ground's business leaders, city officials and residents is that passing the levy will be an uphill battle.

Battle Ground has voted down school levies 14 times since 1983, with the last double failure happening in 2006.

The district's reputation precedes it.

Harden said many of his acquaintances told him they didn't vote during the last election.

Turnout for the February election was 41 percent, and that will have to increase for the levy to pass, he said.

Views differ

At places as far afield as The Cedars on Salmon Creek, the local coffee shop and City Hall, opinions range on what the levy ultimately means for the district, and the community at large.

"I think people don't know what the impacts of this are," said John Bishop, a real estate broker with Hasson Company Realtors and a 14-year Battle Ground resident. "If this doesn't pass, people will lose their jobs."

At a Battle Ground Chamber of Commerce luncheon at The Cedars golf course, Bishop clutched a copy of the district's ballot that he brought and explained how the district could improve its sales pitch for the levy.

"People don't have the time to go over all these details," he said, pointing to the ballot.

The proposed replacement levy would increase taxes by $4 per month for the owner of a $200,000 home, he said.

That's less than a cup of fancy coffee, he pointed out.

Scott Edwards, owner of the Computer Guy Northwest in Battle Ground, had a different take on the levy.

He said he'd seen plenty of waste in the district, and he'd like to see it make do with what it has.

People are feeling "tapped out," he said.

"I don't distrust the school district necessarily," he said. "I just wish they'd use the money they have better than they do."

The district says it has to spend more because of "unfunded mandates" from the state, including new evaluation criteria for all principals and teachers.

Battle Ground Mayor Lisa Walters said she was afraid of the economic effects of a levy failure.

"When you start looking at numbers that large," referring to millions in lost revenue, "you start seeing the children suffer, programs go away, teachers lose their jobs, administrators are going to lose their jobs. And what will that mean for our economy?"

Instead of viewing the school district's levy failures as the result of apathy, Walters said they illustrate a divide within the diverse district. It's geographically the largest in Clark County, covering 273 square miles. It ranges from the Vancouver urban fringes, including Pleasant Valley, through Battle Ground to Yacolt and Amboy.

Historically, a majority of voters in the southern portion of the district tend to back levies, while voters up north don't.

And many folks, Walters said, vote against replacement levies to punish the school district.

She said she feels that's like voting against one's own self-interest.

At Old Town Battle Grounds, a popular café and lunch spot, Glenn Veil sat with a coffee and said he had no intention of voting for the levy.

A four-year Battle Ground resident, with two school-aged kids, Veil said his rule of thumb is to vote against tax increases.

"By not passing the latest levy," he said, "I don't see any direct impact on my kids."

But Harden, the business owner and chamber chairman, said he feared the long-term effects of another levy failure.

If it doesn't pass muster with voters on April 23, the district won't have another opportunity to pass the levy until next year.

He said it's a simple choice.

"Communities don't grow if they don't have good school districts," he said.

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;tyler.graf@columbian.com.