Cash-strapped school districts unleash a flood of levies

Eight local requests are on the Feb. 12 ballot

By Tyler Graf and Susan Parrish

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Live Web chat about school levies is 3 to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29.

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Read the McCleary decision, which finds the state has failed to fully fund basic education, at: http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/843627.opn.pdf

Ballots for school levies are in the mail

The Clark County Elections Office mailed ballots on Wednesday to all eligible registered voters within the boundaries of the Vancouver, Battle Ground, Camas, La Center and Ridgefield school districts.

Voters who do not receive a ballot by Feb. 1 should request a replacement by phoning the Elections Office, 360-397-2345, emailing elections@clark.wa.gov, stopping by the office at Mill Plain Boulevard and Franklin Street or by mail. The mailing address is Elections Department, P.O. Box 8815, Vancouver, 98666-8815.

photoLa Center High School's track and football field will be upgraded if a school levy is passed.

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Citizen groups drum up support for levies

At the center of the work to furnish communities with information -- or, as is often the case, make the sell -- about levies are education foundations and other nonprofit groups.

By law, school districts are not supposed to throw their support -- financial or otherwise -- behind levies.

In Vancouver, the school district's friends group, Citizens' Committee for Good Schools, has upped its game by hiring a consultant to update its website and add social media tools as a way of reaching the community, Jennifer Rhoads said. She's the group's co-chairwoman for both the current and previous levy.

"We've been very regimented as to how we reach out," Rhoads said.

On the group's Facebook page, volunteers can find requests for assistance, such as at a door-to-door canvassing event, which took place Saturday.

Hundreds of volunteers, from high school students to retired folks, signed up to help. The group also posts regularly on the social media sites Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, where its posts include a series of slides listing the "Top 10 technology levy facts."

In Battle Ground, the education group has taken a different tack. The group provides a personal touch.

More than 100 volunteers attended a levy kickoff event Jan. 5 at Mill Creek Pub organized by Citizens for Better Schools, and many more participated in Saturday's door-to-door canvassing event.

All that door-to-door contact is a sizable undertaking: The Battle Ground School District is Clark County's largest geographically, covering 43 percent of the county.

Although coordinator Vicki Sparks' children graduated from the district's schools years ago, she continues to lead the levy effort. She said she was impressed with the "transparency of the district" and the board's seven-hour levy workshop made it "tangible as far as to what a levy means to a school district."

The board of directors of the Battle Ground Chamber of Commerce voted at its Jan. 22 meeting to endorse the district's replacement levy.

Mark Mansell, the superintendent of the La Center School District, said levies wouldn't have a chance if it weren't for the work of foundations.

In La Center, there are two groups that work to support levies. One is called Citizens for La Center Schools, which is working on the maintenance and operations levy, and the other is the La Center Educational Foundation, which is focused on passing a capital fund levy.

"In my eight years, we haven't had anything but support from the groups here," Superintendent Mark Mansell said. "For the most part, this group is an integral part of the conversation."

Staci Firl, the president of the La Center Educational Foundation, said the district would use money from the school district's capital fund levy -- about $200,000 a year for six years -- as a way to ask others to donate. The foundation is working to raise money to make improvements to the track and sports field at La Center High School.

The foundation has already leveraged money from the La Center Casino Foundation and the city. But more is needed, she said.

And for Firl, the levies saleswoman, there's a big selling point.

"Even when you put the two levies together," she said "it's still less than what every school district is asking for."

Citizens for Ridgefield Schools is throwing its support behind that district's maintenance and operations levy. Most of the proceeds would be spent on boosting science, technology, engineering and math programs.

Meanwhile, the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce is supporting Camas' maintenance and operations levy and its technology levy. The Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce works to link the school districts with the businesses of east Clark County.

-- Tyler Graf and Susan Parrish

School districts across Clark County, eyeing an uncertain financial future, are taking to the February ballot in force.

Five school districts will ask voters to approve eight levies on the Feb. 12 ballot. All told, the levies promise to pump tens of millions of dollars into the districts, many of which are wondering about the future of public education in Washington. The February election comes during a period of transition and uncertainty.

Last year, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state had “consistently failed to provide adequate funding” to schools in what became known as the McCleary decision. Following the high court’s ruling, the state agreed to a 2018 timetable to make changes and start pumping additional cash into the state’s school districts.

A local connection to McCleary comes from Vancouver Public Schools, which was the first Clark County district to join the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, the organization that brought the lawsuit against the state.

Tom Hagley, the district’s executive director for community and government relations, called the organization “a coalition which prevailed in its lawsuit against the state for failure to provide full funding for basic education.”

But while some school districts are banking on receiving extra money in years to come, others say they’re now less certain about the future.

“I’m not really sure what kind of impact it will have until it’s sorted out at the state,” said Art Edgerly, superintendent of the Ridgefield School District. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Some legislators have discussed earmarking as much as $1 billion in the next biennium as a down payment for the McCleary decision. But Edgerly is skeptical that the decision will do much for education funding in the immediate future.

Former state Sen. Joe Zarelli, a Ridgefield Republican, and Rep. Ross Hunter, a Medina Democrat, have floated their own “levy swap” concepts, Hagley said. Both proposals would assume less reliance on local district property tax levies and greater reliance on the state’s property tax authority to fund public education.

“Until the Legislature acts to reform the K-12 basic education funding system, school districts must continue to rely on local levies to pay for basic education programs and services,” Hagley said.

In Ridgefield, the school district will continue to estimate how much money it needs to support the students and take out levies to accomplish that goal.

And it’s not alone.

Ridgefield is joined by Vancouver, La Center, Camas and Battle Ground in placing maintenance and operations levies on the ballot, each of which will last for between three and four years. Those levies will be joined by a six-year capital fund levy in La Center and two technology levies in Camas and Vancouver, for four and six years respectively.

To pass, all school district levies require a simple majority.

In Vancouver, voters are being asked to approve a three-year, $133.8 million maintenance and operations levy. In 2010, voters approved the district’s current levy, which expires at year’s end.

The proposed tax rate for 2014 is $3.85 per $1,000 property valuation, a 14-cent increase over the 2013 rate. For the owner of a $200,000 home, that translates to $770 annually — $28 more than 2013, assuming their assessed value remains constant.

Vancouver’s levy pays for teacher and support positions; classroom supplies, textbooks and equipment; instructional technology and software; school safety and security; building and grounds maintenance; staff training and professional development; education for students with special needs; extracurricular activities and intramural sports; technology support in schools: substitutes; portable classrooms; utilities, insurance and fuel; student transportation and more.

The M&O levy will not increase services, but “is to maintain the current level of service,” said Steve Olsen, chief fiscal officer for Vancouver­ Public Schools.

Local levy dollars provide 19 percent of Vancouver’s budget. Most of the budget — 67 percent — comes from state funds, and the remaining 14 percent comes from federal money and other sources.

The Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce announced its support on Friday for both Vancouver Public School levies.

Meanwhile, Evergreen Public Schools, the county’s largest district, passed a $180 million levy in February 2012 with a 56.2 percent approval. In 2013, its first of four years, the tax rate is $4.19 per $1,000 property valuation. For the owner of a $200,000 home, the cost is $838 annually.

Smaller districts alter course

All told, the districts’ maintenance and operations levies represent about a fifth of each district’s overall budget.

The similarities end there.

In La Center, the school board voted in December to keep the district’s replacement levy level for the next three years. That means the district is asking for no additional funds to cover inflation or growth and the levy amount will stay at $2.5 million, or an estimated $3.76 per $1,000 of assessed home value, in 2014.

An additional six-year, $200,000 capital fund levy would be used to create seed money for improvements to the high school’s football field and track.

The La Center school board anticipates receiving a boost in state funding in the near future as a result of the McCleary decision, which was a factor in keeping tax rates flat.

The move came despite tempered misgivings from the district about how the Legislature may implement the decision in the future.

La Center Superintendent Mark Mansell said there’s a strong indication that Gov. Jay Inslee will carry the torch for bolstering education funding moving forward.

Mansell’s eyes are directed toward the governor’s budget. But he acknowledged plenty could happen between now and 2018, the year in which the McCleary changes are supposed to be completed.

“You never quite know what will happen in Olympia,” Mansell said. “In my experience, since 2008 when the economy really fell off, the governor’s budget was always at a mark that everyone started working at.”

It’s a gamble, he admits. And it’s not one that other districts are willing to take, despite short-term efforts to reduce the tax burden on district residents.

The Camas School District is proposing two four-year replacement levies that would increase collection. The district’s four-year replacement maintenance and operations levy would start at $11.5 million in 2014. A four-year replacement technology levy would raise about $1.29 million in 2014.

Despite an increase to the tax rolls, district residents would likely see their bills drop by the end of the levy cycle in 2018 because the school district refinanced an existing bond to take advantage of lower interest rates, said Superintendent Mike Nerland.

That move effectively lowers the amount of taxes the school district will have to collect in the short-term to pay off the bonds, resulting in close to $3 million in savings.

The district used a growth factor of 4 percent in state funding to determine the levy amount. For now, the district doesn’t expect to receive more funding from the state.

“The Legislature has yet to restore the cuts that have been made to education,” Nerland said. “And based on the uncertain economic situation of the state, it is unclear how much progress will be made.”

Ridgefield’s strategy

In Ridgefield, where the assessed property value per student is twice what it is in La Center, the school district doesn’t have high hopes that the McCleary decision will change anything.

The Ridgefield School District already relies less on state funding than Clark County’s other districts. One reason is because the district doesn’t receive money from the state’s levy equalization fund, which is intended to supplement the budgets of property-poor school districts, including most within Clark County.

The money, about 5 percent of a district’s funding, essentially acts as an incentive for school districts to pass levies.

Ridgefield’s school district doesn’t receive any of the money because its assessed property value per student, $861,622, is the highest in the county.

But that high value means the district can maintain the lowest tax rate in the county while keeping its per-student funding high.

Only Green Mountain and Vancouver spend more money per student than Ridgefield. Hockinson spends exactly the same amount as the Ridgefield School District: $1,946.

The Ridgefield School District’s proposed three-year maintenance and operations levy would increase taxes for district residents. The amount would start at $4.1 million in 2014, or $2.30 per $1,000 of assessed­ home value.

The district plans to use part of the levy to bolster its technology curriculum, Superintendent Edgerly said. Some of the money would go toward the district’s new science, technology, engineering and mathematics program, which started at View Ridge Middle School at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year.

Meanwhile, in Battle Ground Public Schools, voters are being asked to approve a four-year maintenance and operations levy. In 2014 the levy would raise $24.4 million.

Dozens of community members attended a seven-hour school board workshop last month to learn about the levy and the needs of the sprawling district with a footprint that comprises 43 percent of Clark County.

Technology drives levy

Even with uncertainty hanging over school districts, in a financial sense, Vancouver Public Schools has decided to try something different.

Vancouver’s first-ever technology levy comes at a time of a digital shift for schools, as they move toward a more wireless classroom.

District officials acknowledge there may be questions about whether it’s the right time to ask people to pay more, as reminders of the five-year-long Great Recession continue to touch people.

But as technologies advance, officials say, teaching techniques need to follow suit, and the district has already delayed a technology levy because of the recession.

“The question is not why now, but why has it taken us so long to do it?” said Olsen, the district’s chief fiscal officer.

The district is confident the levy will pass, Olsen said, citing a community survey conducted last year that indicated 71 percent of district residents would support it.

The district’s tech levy would cost $4 million per year for six years.

Monica Hughey’s sixth grade humanities class is at the flashpoint of the district’s shift toward using technology in the classroom.

Hughey, who teaches sixth grade at McLoughlin Middle School, uses Apple iPads during a three-period block consisting of English, literature and social studies. It’s the type of program that would be expanded if the levy passed.

The tablet-style computers, slimmer and lighter than a textbook, aren’t intended to replace their bound counterparts, Hughey said. But they are intended to replace the paper-and-pencil format for student work, including taking notes.

The iPads come in handy, she said, because of the collaborative and creative nature of working on them. Additionally, they’re what students use at home.

For example, if students are assigned to write a poem about the Nile River, they can write poems using a free tablet app such as Doodle Buddy where they can combine their writing with pictures and hieroglyphics they created or downloaded from the Internet.

Then students send their finished poems to Hughey, who creates a class video of the Nile River poems, using a slideshow maker such as Animoto, another free app.

Other tools include access to e-books and other online reference tools

But what do her students think of the new devices?

“If they lose their iPad privilege for behavior reasons,” Hughey said, “they really dislike having to do their work on paper and then transfer it to their iPad.”