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Area school districts seek levy dollars to fund beyond basic education

Levy elections

Walla Walla School District levy signs like this one on Old Milton Highway are springing up all around town as communities around the Valley prepare for the Feb. 11 special election.

When ballots for February’s special election land in the mail later this week, voters in several local school districts will have the opportunity to say yes or no to proposed school levies.

Walla Walla, College Place, Dixie, Waitsburg, Dayton and Prescott school districts are among 290-plus districts seeking levies across Washington state.

Levy proposals seek funding for a range of needs from learning to transportation to technology to maintenance to capital projects within a district.

It’s important to note levies are not bonds, local school superintendents point out.

“Bonds are for building; levies are for learning” is a memory trick education officials often deploy to help people understand the difference.

“Bonds can only pay for school facility improvements and typically occur about every 10 to 15 years,” said Wade Smith, superintendent of Walla Walla Public Schools.

Most levies, however, must be renewed with a 50% plus one approval of voters every two to four years, depending on what timeline school officials decide to adopt. Walla Walla School District’s levy, for example, has been continually renewed for 50 years, Smith said.

Each district determines a levy amount to ask for, and a levy rate is set based on property values.

Levy dollars — amounts vary depending on year and district — bridge the gap between the state’s basic education funding and the extras that communities depend on schools to provide.

Last May, Washington’s lawmakers voted to relax limits on how much school districts can collect from local property-tax levies, starting this year.

The decision to go to $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value came after a limit of $1.50 was set in 2017.

School leaders across the state had protested the $1.50 limit, saying those collection parameters led them to foresee tremendous financial shortfalls.

As the law stands now, school districts with fewer than 40,000 full-time students — all area schools fall into this category — can ask for levies of $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value or $2,500 per student, whichever is greater.

Some education administrators are hoping lawmakers will again raise the levy cap.

In Walla Walla, levies pay the salaries of teachers for classes such as advanced placement, music, art, drama and physical education. They fund all extra-curricular activities — those not considered by the state to come under basic education, Smith said.

The money funds employees, including health clinicians, classroom assistants, custodians and school safety officers. Levies also pay for classroom supplies and technology, he said.

According to Washington League of Education Voters more than half of levy funds in the state have been historically used to supplement staff salaries.

Although state funding has increased substantially for most districts, local levy funds have been reduced, leaving districts with fewer resources to pay for staffing needed for programs and support personnel, the association said.

Ballots must be postmarked by Feb. 11 or hand delivered by 8 p.m. that day. For voter registration information, visit elections@co.walla-wall.wa.us or call 509-524-2560.

Walla Walla School District

The district is running a replacement levy of $11,010,402. It’s a continuation of a 50-year-old school levy that requires voter authorization every four years.

This levy rate is $2.50 per $1,000 assessed property value, just like the 2016 levy rate, and will maintain that rate through 2024.

For more information, go to wwps.org/levy.

College Place School District

The district is asking voters to approve a transportation levy of $240,000, to be collected at $120,000 per year for two years. This replaces a levy set to expire in August — transportation levy cycles are two years.

The money will be used to add buses to the district’s fleet, to accommodate a burgeoning student population and certain needs, such as wheelchair lifts, Superintendent James Fry said.

The cost of a school bus is in the neighborhood of $135,000, so the $120,000 gathered from this levy will help to combine with local funding as well as the state funding support, Fry said.

This levy would replace the current one at the same amount of 10 cents per $1,000 assessed property.

For more information, visit ubne.ws/3amrA3O or call 509-525-4827.

Dayton School District

Dayton voters are being asked to consider two levy measures: an educational programs and operations levy and a capital technology and facilities levy. Neither is a new tax but replace expiring levies approved by voters in 2016, Superintendent Doug Johnson said.

If approved by voters, education levy funds will continue to finance educational programs and facility expenses not fully funded by the state. This levy would total $4,340,000: $1.05 million in 2021; $1.07 million in 2022; $1.09 million in 2023 and $1.12 million in 2024.

The capital levy dollars will be spent maintaining and improving the use of technology for teaching and learning. At 62 cents per $1,000, it will garner $700,000; $250,000 in 2021 and $150,000 each of three following years.

If voters approve both the district’s proposed levies, the combined tax rate is estimated to start at $1.93, fluctuating downward after that, officials said.

For more information, go to daytonsd.org/levies or call 509-386-2543.

Waitsburg School District

This educational programs and operations levy would replace Waitsburg’s 2018 levy. If voted in, levy funds will be used to support school programs not fully funded by the state.

Superintendent Mark Pickel said the levy supports smaller class sizes, extra-curricular activities, athletics, preschool programs, counselors and nurses, career programs, technology and more.

Proposed is $622,156 in 2021 and $640,535 in 2022 for a total of $1,262,691. The tax rate is set at a hopeful $3.50 per $1,000 assessed value.

Pickel said Waitsburg School Board members decided that amount with the hope the state levy cap will again be raised. If that doesn’t come to pass, the levy amount collected will stand at $2.50, he said.

For more information, call 509-337-6301 or visit ubne.ws/2G1HouS.

Prescott School District

Prescott’s education and operation levy needs renewal this year, Superintendent Brett Cox said.

Voters should be aware the assessed property tax rate dropped in 2019, from $2.77 to $2.65. If voters approve the proposed 2020, the current tax rate will go down from $1.65 to $1.60 in 2021, Cox said.

The district is asking voters to approve a levy of $987,446, broken down into $670,000 in 2021-2022 and $314,466 in 2022-2023, at a property tax rate of $2.54 per $1,000 assessed value, if allowed by the state. If not, that levy cap stays at $2.50 or $2,500 per pupil.

According to Walla Walla County ballot information, Prescott’s levy dollars will help pay for special education, music, food service and counseling programs, among other costs not paid for otherwise.

For more information, call 509-849-2217.

Dixie School District

Dixie voters are being presented with two replacement school levies.

One is a capital levy — in Washington, such levies can have a lifespan of up to six years — of $450,000. That means $75,000 per year from 2021 to 2026, at a property tax rate of $1 per $1,000 assessed value.

The capital levy is proposed to finance health, safety and energy-efficiency improvements, Superintendent Jacob Bang said.

The second educational programs and operations levy will net the district $701,460 via $350,730 in 2021 and again in 2022, at a tax rate of $2.80. That’s if legislators allow the current $2.50 cap to raise, Dixie business manager Debbie Miller said.

For more information, call 509-525-5339.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.