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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Signs against Vancouver Public Schools levy grab attention

Right-wing PAC sponsors express frustration over taxes

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 22, 2023, 6:00am

Though the fog of the November 2022 general election has cleared, some voters in Clark County will return to the polls to decide on a handful of local measures in a Feb. 14 special election.

Among the measures on the upcoming ballot is a replacement education and operations levy for Vancouver Public Schools, the second-largest public school district in Southwest Washington.

It’s that measure that has prompted the construction of a handful of “Vote No” signs across Clark County, asking voters to oppose the levy and highlighting low test scores and a handful of other internal issues, including an in-school fentanyl overdose in the spring and an ongoing voyeurism case.

The proposed three-year levy is not a new tax. Rather, it would replace the district’s current education and operations levies after they are set to expire on Dec. 31 of this year. Vancouver Public Schools last passed such a measure in 2020.

Like in all school districts in Clark County, and throughout most of the state, the proposed levy would continue to support programs not fully funded by the state, namely extracurricular activities like athletics, music and drama programs, as well as counseling and nursing positions and the district’s collection of Family-Community Resource Centers. District officials estimate that levy dollars account for 12.5 percent of their annual operating budget.

“Without local levy funding, these programs would need to be eliminated or heavily reduced,” said district spokesperson Jessica Roberts.

The rate would tax residents within Vancouver Public Schools boundaries an estimated $1.99 per $1,000 assessed property value starting in 2024. That rate is comparable to the combined rate of the two expiring levies, which collected $2.01 per $1,000 assessed property value in 2020 and will expire on Dec. 31, according to the district.

Who’s behind the signs?

The signs — which were paid for by People United for Clark County, a local right-wing political action committee — chastise the district’s poor standardized test scores and a handful of ongoing scandals.

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According to one sponsor of the “Vote No” signs, however, it’s the proposed tax rate that’s compelling a group to dissuade voters in approving the measure.

“We’re paying enough,” said Cemal Richards, one of the names listed as a sponsor on the signs. Richards recently served as a Republican member of the Clark County Redistricting Committee last year. “How much money can you ask for? The way to solve things isn’t always by raising taxes.”

Richards, who said he lives in Vancouver’s Maplewood neighborhood, said he doesn’t have kids of his own in the district but heard his neighbors voicing frustration about the proposed measure.

Other sponsors listed on the signs include Richards’ fellow Republican Redistricting Committee member Juan Gamboa, Anna Miller, David Douglas and John Ley.

Ley ran for a state representative position in Washington’s 18th Legislative district last year until a Clark County Superior Court judge ruled him ineligible, finding that he had lied about his home address in order to file for candidacy in the race. In August, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office opened a perjury investigation regarding the false address.

The address Ley initially used to file his candidacy was located in Battle Ground and does not fall within Vancouver Public Schools’ district boundaries. Ley told The Columbian on Tuesday that he does, in fact, live within the district’s boundaries, but that he hasn’t yet “done his homework” on how to vote on the Vancouver schools measure.

Roberts, the district spokesperson, said Tuesday that the district is aware of the “Vote No” campaign.

“We appreciate the financial burdens that people may be experiencing, and we realize there are concerns about the amount of taxes people pay,” Roberts said. “With these concerns in mind, the board adopted a resolution that would maintain a similar rate as the previous education and operations levy and would still allow us to maintain existing programs and services despite rising needs and costs.”

Signs asking people to “Vote Yes” have also popped up in town, with several of them outside City Hall by the Vancouver waterfront. Those signs were put up by the Citizens’ Committee for Good Schools, a pro-levy volunteer group now led by former Community Foundation for Southwest Washington president Jennifer Rhoades.

“In running a yes campaign, we’re always going to focus on all the great work of VPS. There’s critical areas of this district that are funded by the replacement levy,” Rhoades said. “All the extracurricular experiences that help make school more meaningful? They’re 100 percent funded by the replacement levy. School isn’t just about learning how to read and do math problems; it’s about all the experiences of growing up.”

Ballots for the Feb. 14 special election are expected to be sent out on Jan. 27. For more information on the details of the proposed levy measure, visit Vancouver Public Schools’ website at https://vansd.org/levy/.