Jeff Thoreson cheers with his students after his class wins a tug-o-war game on June 17 as the end of the school year nears in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file photo)

Jeff Thoreson cheers with his students after his class wins a tug-o-war game on June 17 as the end of the school year nears in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file photo)

Editorial: School levies an investment in kids, communities

Voters in several county school districts are asked to approve levies in a Feb. 8 special election.

By The Herald Editorial Board

We’re now about five years past the state Legislature’s solution to the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision — which required the state to amply fund K-12 education while reducing reliance on local school district’s separate property tax measures to voters — but while that solution put a cap on the amount districts can seek in levies, it didn’t end the need for schools to seek those levies to supplement needs for programs, technology and facilities.

Which is why most Snohomish County voters will have received a ballot that should be marked — with yes votes — and returned to drop boxes or mailboxes before Tuesday, Feb. 8.

Most of the county’s school districts — Darrington, Edmonds, Everett, Granite Falls, Index, Lake Stevens, Marysville, Monroe, Mukilteo, Northshore, Snohomish, Stanwood-Camano and Sultan — are seeking program and operations levies to supplement state funding and provide services and programs that aren’t included in the state’s definition of “basic education;” capital levies for technology, school facility construction and maintenance; or both. Northshore, which spans Snohomish and King counties, is seeking both operation and capital levies as well as a 20-year $425 million bond for school construction. The operations and capital levies require a simple majority to pass; bonds require a 60 percent super-majority to win approval.

For all districts, the levies sought are considered “replacement levies,” which will continue similar funding for levies approved in previous years that expire this year.

It’s a common conversation that organizers and volunteers for school district levy campaigns have with voters, said Michelle Nims, who serves on the campaign committee for Everett School District’s two levies: Why — if schools are fully funded — do school districts need their own levies?

“It’s a difficult conversation to have because people are under the perception that education has been fully funded, but there are a lot of gaps,” Nims said. “What (the state) funds versus what a district needs aren’t even within the same ballpark.”

The state’s basic funding is there to pay for the salaries of teachers and most staff, basic transportation and other needs, but there are costs to the district — for needs that most would not want to see students go without — that aren’t funded by the state, agreed Caroline Mason, who serves on the Everett School Board, and also is the levy campaign chairwoman.

“The example we like to use is that the state provides funding for three counselors in our district and we have 27, and also additional nurses, which has become very critical at this time to be able to have coverage at all our schools,” Mason said.

In Everett’s case, the district levy would provide about 14 percent of its general fund revenue, supporting spending on special education services that the state doesn’t provide, counselors and mental health support for students, extracurricular athletics and activities and student transportation for athletics, activities and after-school programs.

As it has in most areas of our lives, the coronavirus pandemic has complicated school life and required additional efforts for a range of student needs.

The Everett district launched a more robust summer school program before this school year with the goal of helping students catch up after nearly two years of remote learning, a program Everett plans to continue in coming years.

“Students have slipped behind during this pandemic and that’s one way and one opportunity to accelerate their learning,” Mason said.

Pediatricians, psychologists and others have noted the mental health impacts of the pandemic, the separation from traditional classrooms and the remote learning that became necessary to protect the health of students, teachers and families. Federal funding, Mason said, helped to make facility changes at schools to allow for a return to classrooms. As well, that funding also allowed the hiring of social workers and counselors to work with students, but that funding is temporary.

“The need for those social workers will remain,” Mason said. “We want to retain those counselors, those nurses, those social workers for the work that they need to continue to do with our students.”

The pandemic also shows the value that Everett got out of its last capital levy, which funded the district’s goal to provide a tablet computer for each of the district’s 20,000 students. That roll-out was accelerated at the start of the pandemic, but the levy allowed the district to ensure remote learning for students while classrooms were empty, as well as the ability to help families connect online with the distribution of internet “hot spots” where service was not reliable or affordable.

The district’s six-year replacement capital levy, along with technology upgrades, will fund maintenance and expansion of facilities throughout the district, replacement of Madison and Jackson elementary schools and security upgrades at schools.

The story is similar for the other school districts in the state; levies will in most cases provide for about 15 percent of their budget to meet the needs of students, needs that aren’t covered in the state’s definition of basic education but remain needs nonetheless.

Public education — whether one has a child or grandchild enrolled or not — has always been seen as an investment that we make in our community, our future workforce, our economy and in the lives of students and future adults. As we look to emerge from a devastating pandemic, the imperative nature of that investment is all the more certain.

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