EVERETT — Property tax levies that support day-to-day operations were failing in four Snohomish County school districts Tuesday night.
Propositions in Darrington, Lake Stevens, Marysville and Snohomish were falling below the 50 percent “yes” vote needed to pass. If the pattern holds, those districts will have one more chance to try to pass levies in the next few months.
School levies in recent years have passed relatively easily. This year, following the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling that mandated the Legislature pour billions of dollars more into K-12 education, property tax bills were expected to rise. At the same time, assessed property values have been increasing, quite sharply in some communities.
The result has been taxpayer anxiety. Even in districts where levies were passing, the margin was less comfortable than in the past.
Also Tuesday, all three bond measures to build and renovate area schools were failing. Such was the case in Arlington and Everett. A bond measure in Northshore was narrowly below the 60 percent needed to pass but district leaders were still hopeful that late-arriving ballots may push it over the top.
Nearly every school district in Snohomish County is seeking at least one levy in this election. Unlike bonds, which go toward building projects, levies are for programs, operations, technology and smaller capital projects.
The operations levies now are called enrichment levies, following the changes in state law under the McCleary lawsuit. Though state property taxes for schools are increasing, local levies are to be capped starting in 2019 to offset the state hike, which is expected to be hundreds of dollars for most property owners this year.
Patty Venema has worked on several levy and bond campaigns in the Snohomish School District over the years. With confusion over the change in state law and fear of a steep one-year property tax hike, she was less confident than she had been in the past.
“People are seeing the impact on the property taxes,” she said. “It has been a little more challenging. Your traditional ‘yes’ people might be wavering this time around. That’s kind of the scary part.”
Venema said the levy campaign committee also has had to change strategies. More voters rely on cellphones and caller ID and fewer are likely to answer landlines than in the past.
“This year we didn’t make get-out-the-vote phone calls,” she said. “We relied on signage, postcards, word of mouth, sign waving and social media.”
Snohomish, like most districts with enrichment levies on the ballot, asked for $1.50 per $1,000 assessed property value in local school taxes.
Everett, Marysville and Darrington proposed four-year levies that would be higher than the state-imposed cap, which is $1.50 per $1,000 property value or $2,500 per student, whichever would bring in less revenue. That would require a change in state law. If the law does not change, the districts would be able to collect no more than the $1.50 per $1,000.
Eight districts also asked voters for technology or capital levies, which are separate from enrichment levies.
In Everett, an operations levy was passing as of Tuesday evening. A $330.6 million bond, which would have gone in large part toward a new high school in the south end of the district, had less than 54 percent of vote. Bonds need 60 percent to pass.
“If the bond weren’t a super majority, we would be in a better position tonight,” said Caroline Mason, president of the Everett School Board. “Mostly, though, I just want to express my gratitude for the support we do have.”
She said she was happy to see the levy passing, but the board will need to reach out to the community to learn why the bond was not.
Arlington Superintendent Chrys Sweeting said she wasn’t surprised by the initial results, which showed that the district’s $107.5 million bond measure was coming up short. She thinks the votes against are tied to worries over taxes.
“The No. 1 thing would be just the tax landscape, the uncertainty of what taxes will be, and some of the increases out there for the state school tax and other taxes,” Sweeting said.
Once the election results are final, school officials will decide what’s next for the proposed bond projects.
“We will remain hopeful because we’ve got an important job to do and that’s to take care of our students and take care of the places where they learn,” she said.
In Northshore, the enrichment and technology levies were passing easily and the bond measure was close.
“The two approved levy measures will help ensure our students have the high-quality teaching, resources and technology,” Northshore Superintendent Michelle Reid said. “While the results of the capital projects bond are still too close to call, we will remain hopeful that the next tally will show approval for the bond.”
Northshore straddles the Snohomish and King county line. The bond was passing in Snohomish County and failing in King County. The proposal is for $275 million that would go toward a new elementary on Maltby Road, among other projects.
School district leaders have reason to be grateful to voters statewide who approved a measure to lower the levy rate from 60 percent to a simple majority in 2007. Only Index and Northshore exceeded that total on their enrichment levies Tuesday.
The last double levy failure in the county occurred about a quarter century ago in the Snohomish School District.
Tuesday’s news also was disappointing for backers of a new library in Lake Stevens and an effort to raise the levy lid for fire services in Darrington.
In its second time on the ballot, a bond to build a Lake Stevens Library was just shy of 51 percent of the vote, and the measure needs 60 percent to pass. If it fails in the final results, the Lake Stevens Library Capital Facility Area previously formed by voters will be dissolved.
“The current ballot count does not look promising, however, we are going to await the final count before commenting further,” said Jonalyn Woolf-Ivory, Sno-Isle Libraries Executive Director, in a written statement.
The Darrington Fire District had asked for a levy lid lift to help fund emergency services. It would need more than 50 percent of the vote to pass and was sitting at about 46 percent in Tuesday’s tally.
Of more than 440,000 ballots sent out to Snohomish County voters, 101,304 had been returned as of 8 p.m. Tuesday, a 23 percent turnout. More ballots remain to be counted and the turnout is expected to reach about 30 percent, county elections manager Garth Fell said. Results are set to be certified Feb. 23.
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.