Jake Shimabukuro, a renowned ukulele player, shows students how to strum an open chord with one hand at Frank Wagner Elementary in October, 2019 in Monroe. (Andy Bronson / The Herald file photo)

Jake Shimabukuro, a renowned ukulele player, shows students how to strum an open chord with one hand at Frank Wagner Elementary in October, 2019 in Monroe. (Andy Bronson / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: After addressing turmoil, Monroe schools seek levy

Voters should consider changes in leadership the district has undertaken as it seeks to avoid cuts.

By The Herald Editorial Board

For some voters, it’s not difficult to come up with a justification to vote against a tax, even one that doesn’t represent an increase, but instead is a continuation of a long-standing property tax to support the public schools in one’s district.

Certainly, inflation has primed the mood to find any excuse to cut household costs, especially for those on fixed incomes, although the Snohomish County Assessor’s Office offers seniors and others programs for deferral or exemption of property taxes.

Yet, cutting individual household costs doesn’t come without costs for others in the community, in particular for the families with children attending or planning to attend public schools. That’s certainly the experience in Marysville where — after voters twice this year rejected replacement program and operations levies — school officials were forced to trim $13.5 million for the 2022-23 school year to offset the loss of its property tax levy, requiring the layoff of some 35 teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting instructional materials and eliminating some athletic and other programs.

That’s the fate now faced by the Monroe School District, which saw its first attempt at renewal of its program and operations levy rejected in February, with only 46.5 percent voting to approve it. In response to the levy loss and a reduction in enrollment, the district that serves nearly 7,000 students cut its budget by $14 million. If a second attempt to approve the levy fails in the Nov. 8 election, the district would have to cut another $14 million for the following school year. And while the district would be allowed two attempts at levy approval next year, even if it won approval it couldn’t begin collecting revenue until the following year.

If its levy fails on Nov. 8, Monroe can expect cuts — similar to what Marysville has experienced — to the number of teachers, increases in class size, and reductions to athletics and other programs throughout the district.

The district is seeking approval of a four-year levy that would generate about $15.8 million in revenue in 2023 — about 14 percent of the district’s budget — on a levy rate of $1.71 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The owner of a $700,000 house, the median for the district, would pay an annual school levy of about $1,200. In the levy’s final year, it would raise $18.6 million on a levy rate of $1.73. The district’s current levy rate is $1.79. Levies are calculated to generate specific revenue amounts, meaning that the levy rate is adjusted depending on the value of the property being assessed.

In addition to the current economic headwinds, Monroe has had to address other controversies in the past year that may have had their own impact on the mood of voters last February, explained Melanie Lockhart, a parent who is leading the yes campaign for the Citizens Group for Monroe Schools.

Lockhart — who is the parent of two children at a Monroe elementary school, with a third sibling soon to join them — said school levies and bonds are subject to the decisions of three types of voters: those who will always support them, those who will always oppose them, and those who are often undecided and who’s vote — or decision not to vote at all — can sway the outcome.

Recent outreach to Monroe voters found a number of concerns in the community, Lockhart said.

Chief among the recent difficulties was the controversy surrounding former superintendent Justin Blasko, who — following complaints of inappropriate behavior, bullying and sexist outbursts — reached a settlement with the district to resign in July. The Monroe district has hired former Mukilteo superintendent Marci Larsen as its interim schools chief for the 2022-23 school year.

The district and its school board has seen additional turmoil in having to address reports of racist language and incidents, involving a faculty member, a parent and students.

And there’s been backlash, Lockhart said, against training that faculty are required to attend on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion and students’ comprehensive sex education. But Lockhart makes the point that, for those opposed to DEI training and sex ed courses, both are state mandated and required to continue, regardless of voters’ levy decisions.

The feedback has helped the district, board and its volunteers direct decisions and make its case to voters regarding the levy.

“I feel that the district has made leaps and bounds in the past year,” Lockhart said, as it addressed the controversies and moved to return focus to children’s education. “We’re going in the right direction now.”

Certainly the hiring of Larsen should help calm some concerns about the district’s management. Larsen had nearly 17 years at the Mukilteo district, where she was known for calm, steady leadership, even as difficult contract talks in 2018 led some teachers in the Mukilteo district to vote no-confidence against her.

There’s some logic to voters using the power of their ballot to express dissatisfaction, whether that’s with an incumbent candidate or the direction of a local governmental district, but wielding that power requires discretion and the acknowledgment that more than one’s tax statement is at stake. Even as the state has taken on more responsibility for the funding of K-12 public education, it has left a significant amount of students’ daily needs to district voters to approve or decline.

Voters in the Monroe School District should consider the changes now underway in their district and approve the funding that students need for an education they deserve.

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