The Marysville School District is at the point where it has had to triage its schools; evaluating the buildings in greatest need for replacement, while balancing that need against district officials’ best guess of what voters will support.
Marysville is one of nine school districts in Snohomish County seeking passage of bonds, levies or both in the Feb. 11 special election: Arlington, Darrington, Edmonds, Lakewoood, Monroe, Mukilteo, Snohomish and Stanwood-Camano Island. (The Everett School District will go to the voters in April for its bond request.)
Each district has its own particular needs and its own case to make before voters. But all face common circumstances with ongoing needs for instructional support — even with recent efforts by state lawmakers to increase basic education funding — and the need for replacement or remodeling of aging buildings and the fact that districts rely heavily on property owners to pay for additional instructional and capital (building) support.
Another shared circumstance: School districts, in order to pass the longer-term bonds that can provide the most resources for addressing needs, must have the approval of 60 percent of voters, in contrast to the simple majority that is required for shorter-term school levies. Often in recent years, when school districts have sought bond approval, they have received support from a majority of the voters but not the super-majority required.
A report on the seismic safety of a representative sample of schools across the state, completed by the state Department of Natural Resources last year, reviewed more than 200 schools at 75 of the state’s 295 districts for earthquake resilience. Included in the report were nine buildings at Marysville school campuses. Of those nine, six were judged as posing a “very high” life-safety risk; two as “high” and one as “moderate high.” The percentage for estimated building damage in a significant earthquake ranged from 49 percent to 77 percent. The Marysville school buildings reviewed were built between 54 and 69 years ago.
But Marysville is bumping up against a daunting record of bond failures. Since 1990, in eight attempts to pass bond elections, district voters have approved one, in 2006, to build Marysville Getchell High School and Grove Elementary.
Its last bond attempt in 2016, which would have replaced Liberty and Cascade elementaries and Marysville Middle School along with other improvements, won a majority but not the 60 percent supermajority.
School district officials, meeting last week with The Herald Editorial Board, acknowledged that because work must begin on the buildings most in need, a tough choice was made to seek approval of a capital levy rather than bond.
Following work by a district committee, the school board elected to take a different tack than before, paring down the ask to taxpayers and seeking a six-year, $120 million capital levy, which would replace Liberty and Cascade, but not the middle school.
Liberty (built in 1951) and Cascade (built in 1955) are past their reasonable service lives, said Jason Thompson, district superintendent, and Mike Sullivan, finance and operations director. Maintenance costs for both are increasing; a fire in a heating unit at Cascade, beyond posing a threat to student safety, required complete replacement because parts for the original equipment could not be found; and neither school’s classrooms were built for the academic needs of today’s students.
Many classrooms at the two schools, for example, have one electrical outlet.
Marysville, as with all school districts, also is having to work to address some misconceptions about issues of school funding, related to daily operations and capital construction. The state provides some funding for school construction, but the bulk of the responsibility is on individual districts and their taxpayers. And, even though state lawmakers have made significant progress in correcting an over-reliance on local levies for funding basic education, districts still rely on program and operation levies to pay for services not met by the state, including a gap in special education funding.
And Marysville are other districts are facing an uphill battle in putting recent news of property tax increases in perspective. While it’s true that Marysville residents’ property tax bills for 2020 increased 32 percent over 2019, local school taxes for Marysville this year are actually 5 percent less that what homeowners paid in 2018, and total average property taxes in Marysville are about $1,000 less than paid by the average taxpayer in the county.
Regarding the levies and bonds sought by other school districts in the Feb. 11 election:
Arlington School District seeks approval of three propositions: A four-year program and operations levy, replacing the existing levy, at $1.70 per $1,000 of assessed valuation; a four-year capital levy for safety and security and high school improvements, at $1.15 per $1,000; and a $71.5 million bond, over the next 21 years, that will replace Post Middle School.
Darrington School District seeks a two-year programs and operations levy, at $1.50 per $1,000.
Edmonds School District seeks a $600 million bond, over the next 21 years to complete improvements to Spruce Elementary, replace College Place Middle School, replace Oak Heights and Beverly elementaries, build a new elementary school, a new middle school and a learning center; and a $96 million, four-year capital and technology levy, replacing the current levy, for safety, security, classroom and other improvements.
Lakewood School District seeks a four-year program and operations levy, at $2.15 per $1,000; and a four-year technology and capital improvement levy for modernization and remodeling of existing buildings, replacing the current levy, at 27 cents per $1,000.
Monroe School District seeks a six-year technology and capital projects levy, replacing the current levy, at 21 cents per $1,000.
Mukilteo School District seeks a $240 million bond, over 21 years, to make additions and partial replacements at five elementary schools, a middle school and high school, safety and security improvements and technology and other improvements thoughout the district.
Snohomish School District seeks a $470 million bond, over 21 years, to replace six elementaries and a maintenance center; make renovations elsewhere in the district; add classrooms at Glacier Peak High School; make district-wide safety and security improvements; and acquire land for future use.
Stanwood-Camano School District seeks a programs and operations levy, replacing the current levy, at $1.70 per $1,000.
These requests by school districts, in almost all cases, are engineered to keep taxpayer’s taxes paid to schools at a consistent and predictable level, bringing in the new bonds and levies as old ones expire.
The tax measures requested of voters represent a significant portion of property taxes; about 37 percent for local districts, with the state collecting another 26 percent for education.
But they also represent an opportunity for investment by taxpayers that produces incalculable dividends in children’s education that our communities, employers, the state and nation depend upon.
The Herald Editorial Board encourages voter support for each of the county school districts’ levies and bonds.