Monroe High School (Monroe School District)

Monroe High School (Monroe School District)

After narrow levy loss, Monroe schools make final pitch to avoid cuts

A tax measure funds 14% of the school district’s budget. If it fails in November, there will be at least $15 million in budget cuts.

MONROE — The fate of the Monroe School District budget is in the hands of voters.

This November is the last chance to approve a school programs and operations levy that includes the 2023 calendar year. If the measure fails, school leaders say the district will face at least $15 million in budget cuts.

About 14% of the district’s annual budget comes from money raised through the tax. In 2021-22, it helped pay for:

• All athletics and extracurricular activities;

• $900,000 in transportation services;

• $1.5 million in special education services;

• About 22 teachers, 59 paraeducators, 14 school health staff, 3 security staff and 10 custodians more than the state funded.

“It’s the meat and potatoes of services for kids. … This one is the most important, basic (levy) that keeps the programs running,” interim Superintendent Marci Larsen said.

The levy would collect about $68.9 million over four years. It outlines an annual cap for how much the district can collect each year, including a maximum of just less than $15.9 million in 2023.

Based on the most recent property value assessment, the district estimates it would cost homeowners about $1.71 per $1,000 of assessed property value in 2023, or about $1,200 annually for a home valued at $700,000, the median home price in Snohomish County as reported by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service earlier this month.

The estimated rate is slightly lower than what residents pay for the existing programs and operations levy, which voters approved in 2018 for a four-year term. This year, that tax cost taxpayers $1.79 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Larsen said approving the levy is like renewing a subscription. That “subscription” provides many essential services in the district, said Robin Hayashi, president of the Monroe teachers union.

“I’m thinking band, sports, choir, drama, the extras that give students a real quality and sense of belonging,” she said.

For teachers, the levy helps keep class sizes small. It helps pays for teachers aides that improve the staff to student ratio in a school room. It also covers supplies and maintenance, including parts of the air filtration systems that have kept classroom air free of smoke this fall, Hayashi said.

“This is not a new tax. This levy is asking for a renewal of a current tax,” she said. “To vote no on this is to actively take funding away from our schools.”

It is the same measure that appeared on Monroe ballots in February, when about 53% of the votes cast said “no.” It was the first time in recent memory that Monroe voters failed to renew the operations levy. In the past two decades, the levy has received at most 46% “no” votes.

School levies need a simple majority approval to pass.

‘The district is listening’

School districts can run a levy twice per calendar year, according to state law. Usually a district would rerun the levy in the next election cycle, which in this case would have been April, Larsen said. School leaders in Monroe decided to wait until November because they wanted time to rebuild community trust and confidence in the district.

“I believe they felt the climate was such that they needed some time before they put it back on the ballot,” Larsen said.

Ahead of the February election, parents had expressed frustration with how the district handled racial incidents, mask and vaccine mandates and the conduct of then Superintendent Justin Blasko.

The outcome of the vote this November may gauge whether voters feel the district is adequately responding to their complaints.

Since February, the board signed a separation agreement with Blasko, hired Larsen as interim superintendent and launched diversity and equity training sessions. COVID-related rules for schools also have eased.

Melanie Lockhart, chair of the pro-levy Citizens for Monroe Schools organization, said the district is trying to respond to parents’ concerns. She is optimistic that the levy will pass this time because of recent changes, including those in leadership roles.

“Nothing is going to be fixed overnight, but I see the district listening, and I see the changes are being made, and I have hope for the future,” she said.

Lockhart is the mother of two elementary-aged students in the district. She said she wants the levy to pass because it will help keep class sizes small.

“If you look at the Marysville district that just faced a double levy failure, they had to eliminate staff, and a lot of those big impacts were at the elementary level,” Lockhart said. “Studies show, historically, that kids overall for the entirety of their school careers perform better if they even just start off with those smaller class sizes.”

‘Live within a budget’

Debra Kolrud, a former school board member, has spoken out against the levy on her Monroe Public Schools Discussion page on Facebook. She disagrees with pro-levy sentiments that the local tax would improve student performance.

“More money does not equate to a better education. We know that,” Kolrud said.

She said the school district received extra “enrollment stabilization” funding in 2021-22 because hundreds of students left the local public school system during the pandemic. Despite receiving the same amount of state funding for fewer kids, test scores dropped, she said.

According to state data, about 49% of Monroe students were proficient in English and about 33% were proficient in math in the 2021-22 school year. That compares to about 60% in English and 44% in math the 2018-19 school year, before the pandemic.

Across the state, 2021-22 test scores are lower than before the pandemic. State leaders have attributed declines to two challenging years with remote learning, quarantine and isolation and a rocky return to in-person classes. And scores are on the rise again, up from 2020-21.

District spokesperson Tamara Krache confirmed the district is no longer receiving the stabilization money, and it has “right-sized” staff to fit lower enrollment by leaving some positions open after retirements or resignations.

“Enrollment stabilization was one-time funding from the state to address an emergent need, while levy funding is ongoing local funding to maintain programs, operations and staff,” Krache said.

Krache said it’s extremely unusual to see a school district without this kind of operating levy.

“If they are using their vote to vote ‘no’ because they think the state should fund the districts, it’s the wrong place to voice that,” Krache said.

Her fellow spokesperson Erin Zacharda added: “Basically they need to share their voice with the state Legislature, because that’s where the change is going to happen.”

Kolrud argued that schools are not supposed to rely on “local dollars” through the tax. Washington’s constitution says the state has a duty to fully fund basic education. The burden cannot fall to local communities.

Rejecting the levy would force the school district to become better financial stewards and “live within a budget, like every other person does in a household,” Kolrud said.

“If you lose money, you make adjustments,” she said.

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.

Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035; mallory.gruben@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @MalloryGruben

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