By The Herald Editorial Board
Issues of public school funding are back before Snohomish County voters with five area school districts seeking approval for levies, bonds or both in the Feb. 13 election.
Ballots were sent to registered voters on Jan. 25 and must be returned by mail or to drop boxes by Feb. 13.
On ballots this month:
Edmonds School District seeks a $594 million bond to complete construction of Oak Heights Elementary School, two new middle schools and two new elementary schools as well as safety, mechanical and structural updates and repairs throughout the district. It is also seeking a four-year replacement technology capital levy that will provide $30 million each year for student computers and more. Replacement levies continue funding for existing levies that expire this school year.
Arlington School District seeks a four-year replacement programs and operations levy that will provide $13.5 million in 2025 and $14.5 million in 2028, to help maintain staffing levels and class sizes, mental health resources and extracurricular programs. It also seeks a four-year replacement capital levy that will provide $6.3 million in 2025 and $6.8 million in 2028. Arlington also seeks a $95 million bond for replacement of Post Middle School.
Sultan School District seeks nearly $80 million in bonds for a new elementary school and upgrades to Sultan Elementary School.
Stanwood-Camano School District seeks a four-year replacement programs and operations levy that will provide about $16 million in 2025 and $18.7 million in 2028 to provide athletic and other extracurricular programs, security, a full-time nurse at each school and maintain class sizes.
Lakewood School District seeks a four-year replacement levy for programs and operations that would provide $7.5 million in 2025 and $8.3 million in 2028, funding athletic and extracurricular programs, hiring a school resource officer from the sheriff’s office, a full-time nurse at each school, and supplemental funding for special education, electives, technology and other programs.
What levies, bonds provide: While the state, through property and others taxes, provides about 75 percent to 80 percent of school districts’ basic education costs, local property tax levies are relied upon for about 10 percent to 12 percent of school district budgets, with the balance provided by federal and other sources.
Local school districts generally are also responsible for providing more than half of the funding for school construction and other capital expenditures, which can be funded through capital levies or long-term bonds, both with voter approval. A recent state Supreme Court decision affirmed the current method for school construction funding.
That leaves local voters with significant responsibility to determine class sizes, extracurricular programs, counseling and nursing staff and other programs, as well as the purchase of computers and other technology and building and remodeling of schools.
Instruction: The basic levies, officially called educational and operational program levies, bridge the gap between what the state provides as “basic education” and what students deserve, said Kimberly Meno, a volunteer with the Arlington schools campaign. As an example, she said, the state’s formula provides for three nurses for a district of Arlington’s size; the levy allows the district to have a nurse in every school, something every parent would see value in.
The loss of an operations levy can be devastating for students.
“We have seen our neighboring school districts struggle with the devastating impact on students when levies fail,” she said.
Construction: For schools with needs for new buildings, remodels, facility upgrades and maintenance and technology needs, bonds and capital levies serve different functions; with bonds providing funding for large projects, such as new schools, paid back over several years and capital levies funding smaller projects, funded by the annual levy.
Arlington’s capital levy and bond requests provides an example of how each is typically used.
Arlington’s last capital levy, Meno said, allowed for the addition of eight news classrooms at Arlington High School and replacement of several roofs at schools in the district. As well, it added “quick-action” door locks to every door in the district for additional security. The replacement capital levy will again go toward work to replace roofs and other maintenance needs throughout the district.
The bond, meanwhile, will allow construction of a new middle school to replace Post Middle School, which was built in 1981.
“Our students deserve a safe and healthy school and Post Middle School is not safe and healthy,” she said. “For one thing there’s asbestos.” The school also suffers drainage problems that flood interior courtyards during heavy rains. Nor were classrooms built in the 1980s designed with current electrical and technology needs in mind, she said.
As well as growth, classrooms must be adapted to changes in how students are taught, which — along with replacing aging schools — is one of the considerations for the Edmonds district.
Edmonds is looking to replace three elementary schools built between 1958 and 1967 and a middle school built in 1970, said Adel Sefrioui, a bond and levy campaign volunteer.
“We have 15 schools out of our 34 school campuses that are over 50 years old. So replacing a few of them now is very, very important,” Sefrioui said.
The 1970-vintage College Place Middle School, for example, is in “very rough shape,” he said, and limps along with a 53-year-old boiler, for which replacement parts have to be custom made. Like a lot of the schools built in the 1960s and ’70s, the middle school was built quickly and cheaply to meet growth demands in the district. The architectural design of the day also left the middle school with 105 exterior doors.
“As a parent, that is frightening to think about how difficult that would be to secure in the event of a lock-down,” Sefrioui said.
Construction of a new middle school also is being driven, in part, by the district’s move to three-grade middle schools, serving students in sixth- through eighth-grade, now typical in the county and state. That move to a three-grade middle school will allow instruction that more closely matches state standards are materials, said Nancy Katims, a volunteer with the campaign and also an Edmonds School Board member.
“Our sixth grade teachers are sort of hanging out there alone in an elementary school and not being able to plan with other middle school teachers, who are using the same curriculum,” she said.
Edmonds student enrollment, while not back to a pre-pandemic level, is increasing. Elementary schools are currently at capacity, but that capacity includes portable buildings that are less than ideal for instruction. Moving sixth-graders out of the elementary schools, Katims said, will allow the district to move more students out of the portables and into buildings’ classrooms.
Taxes paid, investments made: Along with the needs of students, voters should take note that districts routinely look to limit increases and fluctuations in the millage rates that levies and bonds set for a district’s taxpayers, working to hold the local levy and bond rates at consistent levels.
Edmonds district voters, regardless of whether the measure pass or fail, will see an increase of about 3 cents to the $2.62 per $1,000 of property value paid in 2023 taxes. That includes $1.24 for the operations levy, 60 cents for the capital levy and 81 cents for existing and new bonding, less 60 cents for the expiring capital levy, approved in 2021. That’s a decrease from a high of more than $4.75 per $1,000 that district taxpayers saw on their 2018 property tax bills.
Another consideration for voters, who might be tempted to sit out levy and bond elections: Above the basic needs of students for the funding that local voters decide, the bond elections are especially difficult to pass because they require 60 percent approval, rather than a simple majority required for levies. Healthy voter turnout and support for levies is important, but particularly so for bond elections.
Operational levies, capital levies and bonds — above the basic education funded by the state — remain a necessary investment by the voters of local school districts in students’ educational opportunities.
“If they want to keep their home values strong, and the community to be an attractive place where people want to move and businesses want to move, they don’t need to have kids in schools to respect and understand the value and importance of keeping our schools strong,” Katims said.