Vancouver Public Schools will ask voters to approve a three-year, $31.3 million levy in February, citing ongoing budget concerns in light of changes to the state’s school funding model.
Meanwhile, the district is looking at scaling back its voter-approved slate of taxpayer-funded construction projects, saying it can’t afford and doesn’t need a new elementary school in the northeast part of the district.
The school board heard both issues at Tuesday’s regular meeting, spotlighting ongoing school funding issues in the district.
The board voted unanimously to place a supplemental levy on the February special election ballot. Levy money can only be used on operational costs, including instructional programs not covered by the state budget.
The supplemental tax will be added to the levy Vancouver voters are currently paying. The existing levy, approved in February, costs taxpayers $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value.
This new levy is expected to increase that rate by about 40 cents depending on the collection year, bringing the overall district operating levy to $1.93 per $1,000 in assessed property value.
The state Legislature capped local levies at $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value as part of its response to the McCleary decision, the landmark school funding lawsuit that has dominated school funding conversations in Washington for the last decade. But after hearing from districts faced with substantial budget cuts, like Vancouver, lawmakers voted this year to raise that cap to $2.50.
Vancouver Public Schools will be the first district in Clark County to run a supplemental levy since the lid was lifted. The district saw $14.5 million in budget cuts this year, but it eased the brunt of that with about $10 million in one-time state funding and pulling from district savings. The district’s general fund is $344.5 million.
Superintendent Steve Webb said this levy will backfill that one-time spending. School board member Mark Stoker said while he’s struggled with the idea of putting another tax measure forward, he supports the vote.
“I think it’s important for the voters to vote and say whether they want to fill the hole left by McCleary or not,” Stoker said.
On the flip side, the district is now saying a construction bond will not cover the cost of a proposed elementary school at the intersection of 25th Avenue and 88th Street. The district initially proposed the new campus to alleviate crowding in the northeastern part of the school district.
Voters approved the $458 million school bond in February 2017 by a rate of 69.8 percent. Bond revenue can only be used on construction projects.
The proposed slate of projects included two new schools: the 25th Avenue campus and a specialty magnet school in downtown. But district officials say with declining enrollment in the district and “unprecedented” increases in construction costs, it’s no longer needed or feasible to build the 25th Avenue campus.
“We simply don’t have an emerging need for this square footage at this time,” Webb said.
A public hearing on the issue drew no commenters Tuesday, but board member Wendy Smith said she had serious concerns with the proposal to remove a neighborhood school from the project list.
“I question our priorities here, frankly,” she said.
Planning is continuing at a new downtown campus, named the Vancouver Innovation, Technology and Arts Elementary School. In fact, the board voted by 3-1 Tuesday to approve another $184,896 in planning costs associated with that campus. Stoker recused himself due to a conflict of interest, and Smith voted no.
“I understand the realities of the budget, but we’re going to have to make hard choices here and I want to make sure we’re making the right choices,” Smith said.
The board will vote on whether to remove the 25th Avenue campus from its project list at a special meeting Nov. 20.