Madison is one of two aging elementary schools that would be torn down and replaced if an Everett schools levy is passed next year. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Madison is one of two aging elementary schools that would be torn down and replaced if an Everett schools levy is passed next year. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Everett school leaders have 2 big levies on February ballot

The district is asking voters to renew a levy for programs and operations, and to pass a $325 million capital and tech levy.

EVERETT — Leaders of Everett Public Schools are asking voters to embrace two levies they say are needed to tackle present and future needs of the district’s 21,000 students.

The School Board is seeking in February to renew a four-year educational programs and operations levy that generates millions of dollars annually to pay for special education services, athletics, extra-curricular clubs and other programs not funded by the state.

Directors also want voters to approve a six-year, $325 million capital levy, of which a majority would be spent to replace two aging elementary schools and improve technology resources across the district.

The levies will be on the ballot in a Feb. 8 special election. Each requires support of at least 50% of voters to pass.

“These projects are good for kids. And money for the educational programs levy assures that we can continue providing what is essential for our kids and our community,” said Mike Gunn, the district’s chief strategist for facilities and planning. “The needs for these do not go away.”

Passing both would increase the property tax rate imposed by the district by 84 cents per $1,000 of assessed value starting in 2023 — a cost of $35 a month more for the owner of a $500,000 home. It would set the district’s overall tax rate at $4.08 per $1,000 for four consecutive years.

That would be up from the $3.24 to be charged in 2022, but lower than the $4.88 levied in 2020.

But the increase may not be that high.

For the four-year programs and operations levy, the tax rate is $2.20 per $1,000 of assessed value starting in 2023, which is 27 cents higher than what will be imposed in 2022.

However, the proposed rate exceeds a state cap on what the district can collect. Thus, if voters approve the levy, the district can’t impose the full rate unless state law is changed.

“We have to think about the situation now and what our environment will be for the next four years,” said Jeffrey Moore, the district’s chief financial officer.

By asking voters to approve a rate at a higher level, the district is trying to anticipate what the Legislature might do and have the ability to access additional dollars should the law change, he said.

Directors did the same thing four years ago. In response to the McCleary school funding case, lawmakers capped levy rates at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, but the district asked and voters approved a higher rate. Lawmakers have since eased the cap, and Everett’s rate next year will be $1.93.

In the meantime, the $325 million capital and technology levy may be the largest such measure put forth by the district. That’s partly because it contains projects included in a $317 million bond that failed to pass last year.

Roughly 40% of proceeds from the six-year levy would pay for tearing down and replacing two aging elementary schools — Madison ($62.9 million) and Jackson ($48.8 million). Money for replacing the campuses was in the bond.

Another $96 million would go into a pot for computers and related equipment and services. It would include providing a device — laptop or Chromebook — for every student and professional training for teachers and staff who continue to need to work remotely.

There’s $29.7 million to modernize classrooms and the cafeteria at Everett High School, and a little less than that to replace the science building and upgrade the cafeteria at Cascade High.

And a chunk of dollars is earmarked for new roofs at a half-dozen schools, along with improved heating and ventilation systems, improved security fences and monitoring systems, and upgraded fire alarms.

“The projects are needed,” Gunn said.“Putting this package out as a levy instead of a bond saves taxpayers money because they don’t have to pay interest for all those years.”

While the levy aims to raise pretty much the same amount as the bond measures that failed in 2018 and 2020, it would spend the dollars differently than those past proposals.

The 2020 bond would have paid to replace Lowell Elementary and add 36 elementary school classrooms. Those are not in the levy. Nor does the levy steer money into building a new high school, which was the centerpiece of the 2018 measure.

Another difference — probably the most significant — is that passing the levy will only require support of a simple majority. Approval of a bond requires a 60% supermajority, a bar that has proved too high a hurdle for the district.

The 2020 measure came close, garnering 58.8%. In 2018, the bond measure had support from 55.4%.

Meanwhile, there is opposition to the district’s proposals.

Those opposed to renewing the four-year levy say they disagree with asking voters to back a rate above what the state allows.

And the proposed capital levy is “simply too much,” said Jeff Heckathorn. He, Jeannie Magdua and Janelle Burke will write statements opposing each measure in the voter pamphlet.

“The district is touting that the combination of these 2 levies will return the (school district) to charging its local taxpayers a ‘stable’ tax rate,” Heckathorn wrote in an email. “Sorry, but that is not doing taxpayers any favors when assessed property values have been anything but stable and have skyrocketed.”

And the district’s “out of control spending” on salaries that rank among the highest in the state “has to be reined in,” he wrote. “My colleagues and I will try to persuade voters to that conclusion.”

Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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