Local older voters buck axiom by backing school districts' levies

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

Published:

 

It's a widely held axiom that older voters are the ones who sink school levies.

Not here, local school supporters say.

"There's always an exception to the rule, but I haven't found it to be the rule," said Battle Ground schools booster Vicki Sparks.

Despite Clark County's graying population, voters turned out in 2010 to approve school levies. Districts with levies before voters on Tuesday hope the same will happen this time around.

"From all of the years I have worked with the volunteer committee, we have never really been able to pigeonhole any demographic as being supportive or not," said Sparks, who is leading Battle Ground's campaign for a levy that would collect $103.3 million over four years. "We get wonderful feedback from senior citizens and empty nesters."

That's good news for local schools, because Clark County is aging. The median age in 2000 was 34.2 years, with 11.4 percent of the population older than 62, according to U.S. Census data. By 2010, the median age had reached 36.7 years, with 14.7 percent older than 62.

"Seniors are some of the district's strongest supporters," said Tom Hagley, Vancouver School District's executive director for community and government relations. He also volunteers his own time to the levy campaign. "We have more than 6,000 volunteers cleared to work for the schools. Many of these are seniors who have more time to spend in volunteer roles."

The Vancouver school district conducted a poll last year that found both the maintenance and technology levies on Tuesday's ballot exceeded two-thirds support in all demographic groups, including among senior citizens and those who don't have children. Among those 55 and older, 76 percent supported the maintenance levy and 69 percent supported the technology levy, Hagley said. Vancouver Public Schools is asking voters to approve a three-year, $133.8 million maintenance and operations levy. Vancouver is also asking for an additional $24 million, six-year technology levy.

"Those results in 2012 were almost identical to a similar survey done in 2009," Hagley said. "It's an indicator of stability in support."

Camas also enjoys support across demographic groups, said Bob Engel, who is heading that district's levy campaign. The Camas schools are asking for approval of a replacement maintenance-and-operations levy that would raise $48.2 million over four years, as well as a replacement technology levy that would raise $5.2 million over four years.

"As the population does age and people no longer have kids in schools, their kids move away, and then their grandchildren aren't in schools here, they are less connected with schools and education. That's always a factor," Engel said. "But there's a such a multigenerational core to this community. You see a lot of families whose parents or grandparents came through Camas schools. Even as the population ages, a good portion still feels connected and indebted to the schools."

Ridgefield's campaign has observed the same phenomenon, said Jim Maul, who is organizing the group. Ridgefield is asking for a maintenance levy of $12.9 million to be collected over three years.

"We have a lot of people whose kids have gone through the schools, who don't have kids in school anymore, but are strong supporters of schools," Maul said.

Josh Soske, who is organizing La Center's levy campaign, also has noticed multigenerational support. The La Center School District is asking for a maintenance levy of $7.6 million over three years and a capital project levy of $1.2 million over six years. Those in the older age brackets are excited about school again through their grandchildren's experiences, Soske said.

The crosswind worrying levy campaigns isn't aging voters, but the lingering wake of the Great Recession.

"We see the effects of financial struggles faced by our families every day. We're sensitive to the needs of the community and cautious about adding any financial burden," Hagley said. Since the 2004-2005 school year, the number of Vancouver's students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch jumped from 39 to 54 percent, he said.

But Vancouver and other Clark County schools managed to pass levies in 2010, and the economy has picked up since then.

School boosters are optimistic that voters will see a connection between education and a brighter future.

"We understand the importance of equipping our students for jobs in 21st century workforce," Hagley said. "These are long-term investments essential to strengthening our economy."

Clark County Median Age by Tract - ACS 2011

The map above shows the median age of Clark County census tracts based on the American Community Survey in 2011. The palest blue represents tracts with a median age below 35, the slightly darker blue indicates a median age between 35 and 45, dark blue indicates 45-55 and the dark gray 55 and older. Map by John Hill/ The Columbian

Clark County School Levy Results 2010

Voters approved several school levies around Clark County in 2010. This map shows how each precinct voted. Green indicates 60 percent or more of the voters approved the levy while beige indicates 50 percent or more approval and dark yellow indicates less than 50 percent approval. Note: Hockinson and Green Mountain districts did not have levies that year. Map by John Hill/The Columbian