Index School. (Index School District)

Index School. (Index School District)

Voters to decide fate of critical school funding measures

Levies to pay for staff and programs are on the Feb. 8 ballot in districts across Snohomish County.

INDEX — In this rural school district sandwiched between mountain peaks, there’s money in the budget for students to play in the band and to have a nurse on campus a few hours a week.

The funding isn’t all from the state.

For years, the community has helped pay the bill through a local tax levy. But it expires at the end of the year.

Next month, district leaders will ask voters to renew the levy for another four years. If passed, it will bring in an estimated $88,000 in 2023.

It’s a small sum, but an amount that lets the district maintain local control and “continue looking after our own and having the vibrant place of a school in the center of town,” said Index School Board member and part-time teacher Kathy Corson.

Across Snohomish County, a dozen school districts are asking voters in a Feb. 8 special election to approve four-year levies to help pay for programs and services not covered by the state. Each ballot measure proposes to replace a levy set to expire at the end of 2022.

Combined, the measures would generate $329.1 million for the districts in 2023, the first year of collections, and $1.41 billion over the course of four years.

In addition, eight of those districts are seeking approval of separate capital or technology levies to replace ones expiring at the end of the year. Those would collectively bring in $592.6 million. The largest is Everett’s six-year levy: a $325.5 million proposal.

One district, Northshore, is also seeking voter approval of a 20-year, $425 million bond, giving it three tax measures in the special election.

A simple majority is required for passage of the education program and capital levies. Northshore will need support of at least 60% of voters to pass its bond.

Ballots will be mailed Jan. 20, a day after voter pamphlets are sent out.

Snohomish School District officials are asking voters to back two levies — one for educational offerings and one for capital projects. That money would pay for the cost of student learning programs and school building maintenance not covered by state dollars.

If approved, the two levies will bring in a combined $32.7 million in the first year.

“The state does fund, but they fund a very basic education,” said Kent Kultgen, Snohomish School District superintendent. “It’s our responsibility to make sure this generation and generations to come have the education so our society and community can continue.”

Local tax collections make up about 16% of the Snohomish district’s revenue and fund more than 50 full-time positions, he said.

Under the current school funding formula, the state provides enough money for the equivalent of 1.4 full-time nurses for the district’s three high schools, two middle schools, 10 elementary schools, preschool and a home-school program, he said. With local tax receipts, the district could employ the equivalent of a dozen full-time nurses in the district.

And all of the district’s after-school programs — whether it’s athletics or band or drama — are fully funded by the local tax levy, Kultgen said.

It is a similar tale in the Marysville School District where voters will also consider continuation of two existing levies.

The educational programs levy is the district’s second-largest funding source, accounting for over 18% of the overall budget.

The district is fully dependent on the levy to fund athletics and extracurriculars — there is no other source of revenue to fund those activities, district spokesperson Jodi Runyon said. It also helps pay teacher, counselor, librarian and nurse salaries, and it funds early learning programs.

That levy is up for renewal, alongside the technology and capital projects levy that allows the district to pay for equipment that has been essential for student engagement in the pandemic, as well as roof repairs at Marysville Pilchuck High School and Quil Ceda Elementary School.

If approved, the two will generate an estimated $32 million for the roughly 10,000-student district in the first year.

“Without that money, all that’s gotta come out of the general coffers, and right now Marysville is having to do a lot of cutbacks just to meet our current budget,” school board president Paul Galovin said.

This election marks the first time a local voter pamphlet will be sent out with information on the measures, as well as statements from supporters and opponents. Until now, pamphlets were only required for primary and general elections.

It has created an opportunity for levy critics.

“This is historic. School districts finally have to practice what they are supposed to be teaching — public pro and con arguments are healthy, vital components in our democracy,” said Jeff Heckathorn of Mill Creek, who is authoring opposition arguments to measures in 30 districts in the state.

“I didn’t want to be on all these committees,” he said. “But I wanted someone to help voters consider both sides of the issues, a fundamental democratic principle. These school districts, for too long, have deliberately made it difficult for voters to learn all the facts about these levies and bonds.”

Heckathorn argues tax measures should not be on a February ballot when turnout will be low. Also, it comes before people get their property tax bills so they can’t fully assess the impact on their finances.

“How convenient,” he said. “I find it rather infuriating that districts would do this. These important tax measures should be on the ballot in the much higher voter turnout month of November when more is known for hardworking taxpayers. Tax measures affect all citizens, property owners and renters in their rents.”

For school district leaders, timing is important, too. They want to know if stable funding will be there to continue the same levels of instruction and extracurricular activities.

Or if it won’t.

“We’d have to get increasingly creative without the levy in order to fund our schools,” Galovin said.

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; isabella.breda@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @BredaIsabella.

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

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