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News / Northwest

After stark decline in voter approval to fund schools, districts wonder why and what to do now

By Elena Perry, The Spokesman-Review
Published: February 15, 2024, 2:19pm

Spokane-area school superintendents are scratching their heads after voters showed sinking disinterest in funding schools in Tuesday’s special election.

Intended to fund major construction projects, all bonds failed in Spokane County. Levies passed or were appeared headed to passage as of Wednesday’s vote count, but they were winning by much smaller margins than historic trends.

In the second day of ballot counting, support for levies grew slightly stronger in districts too close to call, including Mead, Central Valley and East Valley and Medical Lake. A second levy proposal in Central Valley and Nine Mile Falls’ levy did worse in Wednesday’s count but still are passing.

The rest of Washington shows a similar pattern. On election night, only seven of the 21 bond proposals on ballots across the state garnered the 60% supermajority approval needed to pass, according to a release from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. In Washington, bonds require a 60% supermajority to win approval. Levies must win support from a simple majority.

Districts were counting on bonds to finance millions of dollars’ worth of school construction meant to address overcrowding, impending population booms, aging or out-of-date facilities and safety concerns. After failing, districts can amend and resubmit ballot measures during another special election.

Spokane Public Schools’ $200 million dollar bond was among the failed proposals.

“We’ll definitely want to be listening and seeking to understand what the right next step will be,” Spokane Public Schools superintendent Adam Swinyard said Tuesday.

“Maybe the bond will come back as a standalone item in the future, but when that is and what that looks like is a lot to figure out,” Spokane Public Schools board president Nikki Otero Lockwood said Tuesday.

District spokesman Ryan Lancaster wrote in an email Wednesday the board could make a decision at next week’s school board meeting about how and when the bond may return to ballots.

Superintendents of the Cheney and Riverside districts, where bonds also failed this election, said they would opening dialogues with voters to find out why their proposals failed and what amendments may spur more support.

Ken Russell of Riverside said he was grateful and encouraged by the “positive momentum,” gained by passing the levy at one of the highest rates in the county, surpassed only by rural districts Tekoa, Rosalia, St. John and Great Northern, based on election night percentages.

“We’re not even close to making a decision yet,” Russell said Wednesday. “It’s really important to have honest conversations with our families, our overall community, our staff, our students.”

Ben Ferney, who heads the expansive Cheney Public Schools, also expressed appreciation for the passage of the two levies on ballots this year. Cheney’s bond fared the best in the county, at around a 56% “yes” vote Wednesday.

Beyond community engagement, Ferney didn’t know if and when the bond would return to ballots.

“We’re going to learn our way through this; we need to go back to our community and really figure out what they like and what those concerns are,” Ferney said.

In an autopsy of election results, many said outside factors were to blame. Namely, the economy was a common thread in speculations over the failure of bonds and historically low support for levies.

“I think what we’re seeing tonight is the unbelievable increase in assessed value is hurting all parts of our community, inflation is hurting all parts of our community,” Swinyard told reporters on Tuesday. “Sadly, that is now touching our kids.”

Levies from municipalities like local schools are some of the only portions of a citizen’s property tax bill that they have a say over on ballots.

“Some of the voters in the region have said school elections are the one thing they have control over,” Russell said.

Other levies, from the city and state schools for example, don’t require voter approval like is the case with local schools.

Supporters are hopeful that reluctance to fund schools is a temporary attitude from voters, said Tim Kestell, co-chair of the Citizens for Spokane Schools Committee that runs the Yes! for Kids campaign to pass levies and bonds. Taxpayers are still in “shock and awe,” “trying to catch their breath” over the jarring uptick in taxes.

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“I’m hopeful that as the economy stabilizes and people realize a new normal, that the support is back to our previous year’s campaigns,” Kestell said.

A first for the party, the Spokane County Republican Party lobbied against the tax proposals in Spokane, Central Valley and Mead school districts, sending out over 30,000 texts urging a “no” vote. MJ Bolt, chair of the party and former board member on the Central Valley school board and Washington State Board of Education, said the party’s anti-endorsement doesn’t apply to tax asks of the future, just the ballot items at hand.

“That was the hope, that the school boards would go back and sharpen their pencils and see if they could refine it and have more conversation with the citizens,” Bolt said.

Bolt and Kestell both said they thought the economic climate had more to do with lagging support than efforts from parties or committees.

“Everyone’s having to cinch their belts and their budgets, and I think citizens are wanting the school districts to do the same,” Bolt said, noting that administrator’s salaries could be reduced.

In Spokane Public Schools, 4.8% of the general fund budget goes toward central administration. In Central Valley, it’s 4.6%.

Teaching activities and support, including teacher salaries, instructional assistants, curriculum, extracurriculars and other nonadministrative staff, receive 72% of each district’s budget.

At Riverside, a 1,600-pupil district at the northern edge of the county, Russell said the results could reflect voters’ attitudes towards the state and their policies rather than disdain for local schools. He’s heard growing contempt from Chattaroy residents of perceived state overreach on mandates like comprehensive sex education and other curriculum policies.

“We, as a local school district, try to find a balance of following the state constitution and managing that at the same time as the values of our local communities. That part is more of a struggle than it’s been in my experience in the past,” Russell said.

“A lot of our communities in eastern Washington prefer local control. If they feel like they don’t have that, it’s not gonna help the cause.”

While at this point, stakeholders can merely speculate why support for bonds and levies is plummeting statewide, some argue the trends reflect a turning point in education.

Sarah James, assistant professor of political science at Gonzaga and former teacher and principal, said increased politicization in schools coupled with retention issues coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic begs the question: what is the purpose of our educational institutions, and who gets to decide?

“How, if at all, do we need to be adjusting that to meet the needs for the current economic and global climate?” James said. “I think I would not be surprised if we looked back at this era as a real transition point of the purpose of education that’s being offered.”

Heightened vitriol and contention surrounding school topics like sex education, mask mandates, book-banning, gendered bathroom access, religion in schools and pronoun use have become topics used to push narratives by ideological groups on all sides of the political spectrum, she said.

“You always have to think of the narratives on both sides,” James said. “Both liberals and conservatives have developed new narratives on what school does and what school is for, that has very much been in conversations.”

Reporter Roberta Simonson contributed to this article

Elena Perry’s work is funded in part by members of the Spokane community via the Community Journalism and Civic Engagement Fund. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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