Marysville School District Superintendent Zac Robbins, who started work at the district last year, speaks during a Jan. 5 event kicking off a pro-levy campaign for the Feb. 14 election, at the Marysville Historical Society Museum in Marysville. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Marysville School District Superintendent Zac Robbins, who started work at the district last year, speaks during a Jan. 5 event kicking off a pro-levy campaign for the Feb. 14 election, at the Marysville Historical Society Museum in Marysville. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Voters have role in providing strong schools

A third levy failure for Marysville schools would cause even deeper cuts to what students are owed.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Zac Robbins, who started work as Marysville School District’s superintendent last June, may have hit the ground running when he arrived, but that ground was all uphill.

Just weeks before his arrival, the district had lost the second of two school levy elections that year and was in the midst of making decisions on cuts and other adjustments forced by a loss of revenue, a loss that will extend past even this school year.

Robbins’ message to the district’s teachers and other staff at Marysville schools was to ask for their best. And to work together.

“My first words to everyone were that we must work together in the best interests of children,” Robbins said during a discussion last month with the editorial board. “What I saw and what it felt like was that people were not connected with each other for the singular purpose of making sure every student improves academically.”

That’s not to say that people weren’t working hard, but they had to work collectively on a shared goal, he said.

“That’s how we get it done. That’s how you make sure. All must work together,” he said.

Now, he and others throughout the district and the Marysville community are going to voters to ask the same of them: to work together to restore the district’s full funding with approval of its Feb. 14 maintenance and operations levy.

The four-year levy will bring in about $25 million in 2024 and a total of about $107.75 million over its four years. It seeks a levy rate of $1.67 per $1,000 of assessed value. For a house with an assessed value of $500,000, the annual tax will amount to about $835. That’s a reduction in the amount sought in the last two elections; $2.20 per $1,000 last February and $1.97 in April; and the $2.35 they paid in 2022.

While taxpayers will notice no local property tax collected for the school district in their statements this year, this is a replacement levy of a tax paid in previous years and should not be considered a “new” tax. This is a tax routinely paid by taxpayers in most districts throughout the state, and it supplements what is provided by the state.

Typically, that local levy revenue supports about 14 percent to 16 percent of the district’s spending as it does for most school districts, said David Cram, the district’s executive director of finance, making up for what the state doesn’t provide in its funding for a range of needs, including additional teachers and support staff to keep class sizes low and the schools maintained, curriculum and supplies, technology and training, athletics and clubs and safety and transportation.

The loss of that levy revenue this year offers a good illustration of how exactly that money is used, and why approval of the levy is considered so crucial to the future of the district’s students.

The district cut about $13 million from spending last year, and — regardless of what happens in the election — will have to make another $12.5 million in cuts for the 2023-24 school year, as the earliest collections could begin if the levy passes is 2024.

What that has meant, reported The Herald’s Mallory Gruben last month, is a loss of about 40 full-time teaching positions from a current staff of 685 for a district serving more than 10,200 students. No layoffs were made, but many positions were left unfilled.

The result, Cram said, has been an increase in class sizes, starting with kindergarten through third-grade classes; with increases from 17 to 18 students to 20 to 21 students. Failure of the levy and its following cuts, he said, would see further increases in class sizes in advanced grades and changes to programs, such as classes like Advance Placement in high school being offered only every other year, if at all.

The difference between passage and failure also will determine the fate of the district’s athletic programs, its swimming pool, its early-learning program, continued school nurse and counseling for students and more.

Marysville and the larger community stepped up after last year’s levy failures; the City of Marysville supplied school resource officers that the district had funded in past years, and Snohomish County funded continuation of youth recreational programs through the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs after the school district cut middle school athletics and high school C teams.

“We’re happy that Snohomish County and the ‘Y’ and the Boys & Girls Clubs stepped in, but I feel that’s a school district responsibility,” Robbins said. But that continued support isn’t sustainable and can’t continue long-term.

And while athletics and extracurricular clubs happen outside of classroom hours, it’s still important for child development and physical and emotional health, the superintendent — and a past coach of football, softball and track and field — said.

“The time between when you leave home to when your parents get home is so critical. Having a caring adult and having constructive things to do during that time is so important,” Robbins said.

Voters also should bear in mind the difference between a maintenance and operation levy and a capital improvement levy or a bond for remodeling of schools and new construction. Even with approval of the levy, voters won’t see significant improvement of the condition of school buildings, beyond day-to-day maintenance. And they shouldn’t fault the district for the current physical condition of its schools; that’s the responsibility of the state, and the district’s voters.

Marysville attempted a $230 million school bond in 2016 and a $120 million capital levy in 2020, seeking to replace two elementary schools built about 70 years ago, among other improvements. Both failed, leaving those needs to future elections.

As dire as a third levy failure would be, Robbins said he is encouraged by the response he’s seen among the community

“It’s been very fantastic to watch the community support swell and build for this levy measure,” he said, noting the standing-room only attendance for a levy event last month.

That support likely does include a majority of voters in the district; but those voters now need to turn out, mark their ballots and return them to drop boxes or mail boxes before Feb. 14.

Some, questioning the levy, have pointed to lower test scores for district students, as if those scores are a reason to withdraw support. All districts need to be challenged to work to improve academics, not just in scores but in outcomes for each child. That’s the duty and expectation for public education. Yet, withholding financial support — out of a misguided notion that teachers and administrators will work harder if schools are provided less funding — ends up punishing students and robbing them of the opportunities they deserve.

And in the end, it robs their own communities.

“School districts should be the heart of any city, because the city’s school children spend most of their awake hours in schools,” Robbins said. “So schools have to be places that work for children.”

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