School districts consider effect of ‘outside forces’ on voting

“But I think we have to take a look at ourselves also,” says one superintendent.

EVERETT — School officials in four local districts are readying for a possible second run at passing levies to support day-to-day operations, even as ballots from Tuesday’s election still are being counted.

Their timeline is tight. To get their measures on the April 24 ballot, they have to take them to their respective school boards before the results from the Feb. 13 election are made final next week.

Measures in Lake Stevens, Marysville and Snohomish still have a chance to pass from Tuesday’s special election, while Darrington’s levy was coming up short. Lake Stevens and Marysville had more than a 49 percent “yes” vote after another batch of ballots was counted Wednesday.

The programs and operations levies are now called enrichment levies following changes to state law on school funding. Basic education is now meant to be covered by state dollars. School officials say the state’s definition of basic education does not include everything they consider important for their communities.

Whether Tuesday’s measure passes or not, the results tell Snohomish Superintendent Kent Kultgen that the district needs to do more to connect with the community beyond families with school-aged children.

“If it does pass, awesome, but we still have work ahead of us,” Kultgen said. “Levies aren’t passed or failed in the weeks before the vote but in the years between when you have built those relationships with the community.”

Kultgen said the circumstances of this election were challenging, given the timing of how complex school funding issues played out. This year, changes in state law take effect to address the McCleary court ruling, which requires billions of dollars more in state funding for schools. Property tax bills were expected to rise due to increased state taxes. Local levies are to be capped at lower rates starting in 2019, but that still means a hefty one-year hike in 2018 for most property owners. At the same time, assessed property values have been going up in many areas.

“We could chalk it up to outside forces, but I think we have to take a look at ourselves also,” Kultgen said. “We are brainstorming how do you reach those folks you don’t have a direct connection with, how can we engage them about advantages to them to have a strong school system in (their) community.”

In Marysville, the school board next week is likely to be looking at a resolution to put a levy on the spring ballot, said Jason Thompson, acting superintendent.

“That’s our immediate challenge,” he said. “Unfortunately, instead of planning our budget and staffing for next year in a positive way, we have to look at what we would cut if there’s a double levy failure.”

The last double levy failure — when a levy fails twice in the same year — for a Snohomish County school district was 25 years ago, in Snohomish. State law allows school districts to run levy proposals twice in a calendar year.

A levy failure in this election would change the conversation for the next one in Marysville. This time, the district focused on what levy funds would add to students’ education, Thompson said. Now, they’ll have to talk about what may be lost if a levy doesn’t pass.

“A double levy failure would be catastrophic for our district,” Thompson said. “It would mean a whole lot of cuts.”

Marysville is one of three local districts that asked for a levy higher than $1.50 per $1,000 assessed property value. Starting in 2019, local levies are to be capped at $1.50 per $1,000 or $2,500 per student, whichever would bring in less revenue. Lawmakers are considering changes, however, that may allow districts to collect more. It’s doubtful Marysville would drop its request to $1.50 per $1,000, Thompson said, though the district would be capped at that if the law doesn’t change.

“We don’t feel that anything we’ve asked for is extravagant,” he said. “It’s basic needs.”

Marysville did learn Wednesday that a technology levy that was failing Tuesday had nudged above the simple majority needed to pass. More uncounted ballots will decide both of Marysville’s measures.

It’s a tough and confusing time for voters, Darrington Superintendent Buck Marsh said.

“The state hasn’t adequately outlined exactly how the new funding model’s going to work. There’s still some question marks in the Legislature,” he said. “We’re hopeful that, as the picture from Olympia gets a little clearer, what we present to the voters in the next election will address some of those questions.”

Darrington was another district that asked for more than $1.50 per $1,000. It’s too soon to say if the next request will be lower, Marsh said.

The initial election results were disheartening, said Jayme Taylor, a spokeswoman for Lake Stevens schools. However, officials remained hopeful the district’s enrichment levy would pass. It was on the cusp in the first round of results, less than 1 percentage point shy of passing. A separate technology levy was on track to pass in the early counts.

“If the (programs and operations) levy does not pass, we will talk with our board of directors about bringing this back to the voters in April,” Taylor said. “Without this funding, we will have to make some very difficult decisions about student programs, activities and staffing.”

Like officials in other districts, Taylor said complexities and changes in school funding likely contributed to the number of “no” votes. News of increased property tax rates in the county, particularly in Lake Stevens, also gave voters cause for concern, she said.

Statewide, more than 150 school districts asked for enrichment levies. All but 10 of those measures were passing in the first tally. Four of the 10 failing measures were in Snohomish County and three were in King County.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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