All seven school districts in Whatcom County are asking voters to approve levies that make up at least 20 percent of their budgets and that school leaders say are crucial to their ability to provide education and other school activities.
“This is important because it allows us to continue to do what we’ve done for kids,” said Ron Spanjer, superintendent for Blaine School District.
Added Mark Deebach, assistant superintendent for business and support services for Ferndale School District: “There’s not a single part of our operation that isn’t directly impacted by our levy money.”
The maintenance and operations levies, paid by property taxes, wouldn’t be new. If approved by voters, as they usually are, they would replace levies that expire in 2016.
The money pays for things such as teaching, transportation, school supplies and athletics, music and theater, among other needs
Bellingham School District also is asking voters to OK a technology levy. This, too, would be an extension of one already put into place by voters, but the school district is asking for nearly twice as much in the first two years of this levy.
The four-year levies are the main measures on the Feb. 9 special election ballot. They need a simple majority to pass.
Voters can save the 49-cent stamp by dropping off ballots in a drop box. A list of sites is included with ballots mailed to voters and is online at whatcomcounty.us/1863/Ballot-Drop-Box-Locations.
The requests come at a time that state legislators continue to grapple with how to pay for education, given that the state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 in the McCleary case that the state was failing in its constitutional duty to fully fund K-12 education.
The state has been given a 2018 deadline to fully fund education instead of leaving school districts to attempt to close that gap with local property-tax levies.
There’s some concern among educators that voters could be confused by the ongoing debate.
“There’s just a lot of speculation right now around what that might look like,” Spanjer said.
Until the state fixes the funding, it’s critical that school district have local levies in order to continue to operate, Bellingham Superintendent Greg Baker said.
Here’s a look at what school districts are proposing.
The two levies make up more than 25 percent of the school district’s budget.
“It helps support everything that we do,” Baker said.
The school district has more than 10,000 children in 22 schools. To illustrate how the levies help fill a funding gap, Baker likes to ask people how many school nurses they think the state pays for. People usually guess one nurse per school, he said.
The state provides enough money for 1.7 nurses for the entire district, he said.
Local levies allow the district to add money so there can be a total of seven nurses.
“It’s still not enough nurses,” Baker said. “The state so under-funds our system. The local levies help us but the state puts a lid on how much we can ask for.”
The two replacement levies would bring in about $44.6 million to $46.6 million a year through 2020.
While the maintenance and operations levy rate would be roughly the same going forward, the school district is asking for a big hike in the first two years of the technology levy. The 2016 rate for the technology levy is 56 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value.
The 2017 rate would be 94 cents and then 98 cents the following year.
That’s because in those first two years, the school district is starting what it’s calling the 1:1 initiative. The goal is to put a digital device like a laptop or a tablet into the hands of every student in grades 3 through high school as part of their education and to ready them as they enter the world outside of school. More money is needed the first two years to buy the devices and to train staff.
“We feel an obligation to fully prepare kids for what the next step is,” Baker said, adding the effort also was important in closing the digital divide for low-income students who couldn’t otherwise have access to technology.
“It levels the playing field a little bit,” he said.
The estimated tax rate for both levies combined would be $3.58 per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value in 2017.
That means a person with a home assessed at $300,000 would pay about $1,074 next year.
That would be $114 more a year in property taxes in 2017 for both levies, although that would dip a little in the third year because the technology levy would decrease by 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
The school district is asking voters to bump up the rate, starting with the biggest increase to $1.98 per $1,000 of assessed value starting next year.
That’s because the district is launching full-time kindergarten and is working toward the new state requirement that students, starting in 2019, have to earn 24 credits to graduate from high school.
“We feel like that gives us the opportunity to keep up with some of these transitional pieces. They’re on us. We’re there and we have to get these things accomplished,” said Spanjer, Blaine’s school superintendent.
The levy would bring in about $7 million to $7.5 million a year through 2020.
Next year, the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $594 in property taxes. That’s $42 more a year than 2016.
The levy rate would increase slightly over the next three years.
The school district is asking voters to approve a rate of $3.70 per $1,000 of assessed value each year through 2020.
That’s the same rate property owners are paying in 2016.
“We’re trying to be respectful of the community,” Deebach said of why the district didn’t ask for a higher levy rate.
“With everything going on with Intalco and everything that’s happening, we don’t want to ask for more. We’re trying to maintain the programs and keep doing what we’re doing and we’re going to do it for what were currently getting,” he added.
Alcoa has said it will curtail the Intalco Works aluminum smelter west of Ferndale at the end of June.
The plant was initially slated to be idled by the end of March, but recent changes in energy and raw material costs have made it more cost-effective in the near term to keep the smelter operating, the company announced earlier this month.
The levy would bring in about $14.4 million to $15.3 million a year through 2020.
If approved, the owner of a home assessed at $300,000 would pay about $1,110 a year.
Ferndale votes have supported the levy since 1977.
“But we’re not taking anything for granted. We are extremely appreciative of our community and the support they’ve given to their schools and their children,” Deebach said. “We’re in no way looking past it or assuming it’s going to pass. We’re explaining, we’re talking, we’re presenting.”
The maintenance and operations levy makes up about 20 percent of the day-to-day operations for the Lynden School District.
It would bring in an estimated $5.8 million in 2017 to $6.4 million in 2020.
Next year, the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $849 in property taxes. That would be $27 more than 2016.
That’s for a levy rate of $2.83 per $1,0000 of assessed value. The rate would go up slightly over the remaining three years.
At Meridian School District, the maintenance and operations levy makes up 22 percent of the budget.
The levy would bring in an estimated in $4.1 million in 2017 to a little over $4.2 million in 2020.
The school district is asking voters to bump up the rate. It would be $4.13 starting in 2017.
That means the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $1,239 in property taxes next year to support the levy, an increase of $90 over this year.
The rate would increase by another 10 cents through 2020.
The levy for Mount Baker School District would bring in an estimated $5.8 million in 2017 to a little over $6 million in 2020.
The estimated tax rate would be $3.95 per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value in 2017, if voters approve the levy.
That means a person with a home assessed at $300,000 would pay about $1,185 next year.
By comparison, the owner of the same home will pay an estimated $1,089 for 2016.
The rate would go up the remaining years.
This school district is asking voters to approve the same rate through 2020 — $4.40 per $1,000 of assessed value.
That’s up from the rate this year of $4.15.
If the new level is approved, the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $1,320 in property taxes for 2017. That’s an increase of $75.
The levy would raise an estimated $3.8 million in 2017 to $4 million in 2020.
It makes up about 20 percent of the school district’s budget.
Ballots for next month’s special election have been mailed.
All school districts in Whatcom County and Fire Protection District 8 are asking voters to approve levies.
Voters also will receive an abbreviated version of the local voters’ pamphlet in the envelope with their ballot for the Feb. 9 election.
People who haven’t received their ballot by Jan. 29 should call the Election Division of the County Auditor’s Office at 360-778-5102 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays.
The Auditor’s Office is encouraging voters to return their ballots early.
Feb. 9 is the deadline for returning ballots, which must be postmarked by that date or deposited in an official ballot drop box by 8 p.m. that day.
Find a list of drop box locations at whatcomcounty.us/auditor by clicking on “Voters,” or check the voters’ pamphlet enclosed with the ballot.
In their words
Columns from Whatcom County school districts explaining the need for school levies and what they fund can be found online at bellinghamherald.com/opinion.