Voters have the opportunity to weigh in on crucial school funding projects in Evergreen Public Schools and the Ridgefield School District in Tuesday’s special election.
The first item on the ballot concerns Evergreen’s replacement educational programs and operations levy, which is set to expire at the end of 2022. The measure failed at the ballot in February’s special election, with just over 40 percent voting to approve. The measure requires 50 percent plus one in favor to pass.
The proposed levy would help fill gaps to support staff wages and provide critical resources in nursing and mental health across the district. It would provide funding for athletics and other supplementary school programs like music and performing arts for students of all ages.
In an effort to increase the measure’s attractiveness to voters and after further addressing financial strain in recent months, Evergreen officials have adjusted the levy request so that the local tax rate will be lower.
“We told the community, ‘We understand inflation is high, a gallon of gas is a lot of money now and people are feeling strapped, so we’re going to (lower the rates),’ ” said interim Superintendent John Boyd, who stepped into the role in December. “They’re tightening their belts, so we’re going to tighten ours too.”
Evergreen is now asking for a three-year levy at $1.70 per $1,000 of assessed value for all three years, the same tax rate that those living within district boundaries are currently paying.
The measure that was proposed on the February ballot asked for $1.92 per $1,000 of assessed value the first year and $2.12 the second and third years.
When coupled with the previously approved bond measure and technology levy, voter approval of Tuesday’s levy would lower the current local school tax rate from $3.79 per $1,000 of assessed property value to a projected $3.68 in 2023, $3.48 in 2024 and $3.48 in 2025.
In a virtual meeting with The Columbian’s Editorial Board on Tuesday, Evergreen officials shed light on some of the reasons they felt that the levy had failed in February. Among the top reasons was a general dissatisfaction with the inconsistent nature of education amid the pandemic.
“We’ve been through a lot,” school board member Victoria Bradford said. “COVID, and the issues that school districts have faced through all of that. There’s just been some dissatisfaction with schools; I don’t think (voters) are necessarily mad at us as much as they’re mad at the situation.”
Boyd and Bradford also addressed concerns regarding administrator turnover in recent years, particularly the departure of Superintendent Mike Merlino in December, which featured a $269,000 payout.
“I absolutely understand the concern and we knew people would be upset and unhappy about the payouts,” Bradford said. “We knew that politically it might hurt us, but what’s right is what’s right. And that’s how we had to proceed.”
In Ridgefield, backs against the wall
Officials in the Ridgefield School District are again running a $62.6 million general obligation bond to fund the construction of a new elementary school and the expansion of Ridgefield High School.
The measure requires a 60 percent supermajority to pass — in February it narrowly missed the mark, with just57.5 percent voting to approve.
The district aims to combat intense population growth that Ridgefield has seen in the last decade, as well as the 300-400 additional students they expect in the district by the 2023-24 school year.
Unlike Evergreen, Ridgefield hasn’t budged on its measure — which has failed four times since 2019 — arguing that the longer it goes without it passing, the more difficult and expensive it will be in the future.
“It is not a matter of if, but when the community will approve the construction of the new school,” said Andrea Walker, a volunteer for Citizens for Ridgefield Public Schools. “It will only be more expensive if we wait.”
If voters approve the bond next week, collections would begin in 2023 at a projected rate of $3.44 per $1,000 assessed value.
The proposed 75,000-square-foot elementary school would be built at 7025 N. 10th St. It would open as a K-6 school in the fall of 2023 to ease the transition between grades. The 18,000-square-foot expansion to Ridgefield High School would also provide new classrooms and lab and shop space for the district’s Career and Technical Education program.
In March and April, Superintendent Nathan McCann and Assistant Superintendent Chris Griffith spoke to and with members of Ridgefield’s board of directors about potential contingency plans to deal with overcrowding in the coming years in the event that the bond fails yet again.
The proposed plans to accommodate the population growth, while not considered ideal, include redrawing school attendance boundaries, adjusting elementary schedules, converting extracurricular spaces into additional classrooms and even moving to a year-round attendance model.
“If the bond passes in April, the new school still has the chance to be open for the 2023-2024 school year,” McCann said in a virtual presentation on April 15. “But this truly is our last opportunity.”