Why do communities need levies?

By Melanie Bruski

The February 13th Special Election, for many parts of our county, contains levy and bond Propositions for many school districts. Onion Creek School District has a Replacement Educational Programs and Operations Levy (Replacement EP&O), Chewelah School District has two measures on the ballot, one for a Replacement EP &O and another Replacement Capital Levy for Health, Safety and Site Improvements to replace bleachers, improve Snyder Field and upgrade sidewalks and parking lots, Colville has a Capital Levy for Safety, Security and Technology Improvements to increase security district-wide, upgrade communications systems, add HVAC and upgrade playgrounds, Nine Mile Falls District has a Replacement EP&O, Loon Lake also has a replacement EP&O, Deer Park has two measures, one Replacement EP&O and a bond measure to renovate and construct more school facilities, Columbia has a replacement EP&O on the ballot, as do the Orient and Northpoint School Districts. 

First, what is a Replacement Educational Programs and Operations Levy? How is it different from a Capital Levy or a Bond? A Replacement EP&O replaces an expiring levy that has already been approved by a vote of community members, it is not compounded; the old one expires, is thrown out and the new one replaces it. EP&O levies are meant to enhance learning, extracurricular activities, programs and services and pay the personnel that perform these duties. A Capital Levy, like the ones being run in Chewelah and Colville fund things like modernization of technology, enhancing security in buildings and completing small renovation projects to existing buildings and school areas. Bonds, on the other hand, are meant for building new schools and large renovation projects – like the one on the ballot in Deer Park to build a new Elementary School for the growing population. 

Deer Park School District Propositions 1 and 2 have no listed arguments against the Replacement EP&O or the Bond listed on their ballots. Neither do any of the other school district propositions listed on ballots across Stevens County, except for the Nine Mile Falls School District. The argument against Proposition 1 in Nine Mile Falls (this argument can be found at votewa.org) was prepared by Ann Fackenthall and includes concerns about the expectation of funding via the community “in this time of high inflation,” the “transparency” of the district, citing “murky” communication between the community and the district, a “reduction in failing students,” “equalizing expenditures…..such as sports vs. arts” and community members against this Proposition also want the district to address “CRT, CSE and gender identification” studies. 

Some community members are concerned about these measures on the ballot considering the inflated cost of living, the increased valuation of homes in the area and therefore, the rise in property taxes in Stevens County. One Suncrest resident said, “The state and federal government pay for public school education. I don’t know why I have to pay more when I don’t even have kids in the district. The cost of living has gone up so much and my property taxes have skyrocketed in the last few years. I can’t afford to pay for other people’s kids.” This is an understandable stance to take in today’s economy – especially in the unsurety of an election year. So, what do the state and federal government pay for when it comes to public school education? The state provides something called a ‘prototypical model for basic education’ which means they provide funds solely for education. They do not provide funds for athletics, clubs or any after school activities including transportation for any of these activities. According to Jeff Baerwald, the Superintendent of the Nine Mile Falls School District, “….over 80% of our 7th – 12th grade students participate in at least one after school activity. Imagine what our students will do if these no longer exist.” For students in Nine Mile Fall, these activities are all levy funded, as they are for the Deer Park School District and all school districts in Stevens County and Washington State. The state funds $0 of student extracurricular activities including sports and drama, yet the district offers these activities for students because they have had the expiring levy to support them. A Deer Park Mom said “I’ll vote yes. I’ll pay a whole lot more if that money is guaranteed to go to the kids.”

Concurrently, the federal government also provides funds to public school districts, but these funds are much more specialized and must be used for very specific things like remediation (extra help) for at-risk students to reduce the number of failing pupils. Lakeside High School has been named the top high school in the Spokane Metro Area by US News, who also cites the graduation rate at LHS as 93% for 2023; this same publication lists the Washington State graduation rates for the 2021-2022 school years at just over 82%. EP&O levies fund personnel that the state and federal government do not, teachers and other staff members that districts would not have without funds from these levies. According to the Deer Park School District, the state funds $10.4 million dollars for certificated teachers, but the district pays out $11.6 million for teachers, meaning the EP&O levy funds $1.2 million dollars for teachers in that district. For the Nine Mile Falls School District, Baerwald states, “The prototypical model does not fully fund education based on the current expectations of our community. The prototypical model does not fund 42 certificated and classified positions in our district.” 

When it comes to hiring staff for enrichment for the 9 Mile District, some community members are concerned about what is being taught to their kids. Their concerns spread further than math or reading; they are concerned about what their children are being taught regarding Critical Race Theory and Comprehensive Sexual Health Education (CSHE). Currently, CSHE is required by law in Washington State after Senate Bill 5395 passed the legislature and Washington voters in 2020. This requirement went into effect for the 2022-2023 school year.  When asked about these issues, Superintendent Baerwald stated “…..the Board is not above the law, and we must ensure our state funding is not impacted by not being compliant with educational related legislation in our state. We don’t teach, create or implement Critical Race Theory. We honor the values of our community, and we follow the laws of our state.” 

In conclusion, nobody likes paying taxes; and even more, nobody likes paying taxes for services they cannot and will not use. Over 200 years ago Benjamin Franklin notably stated “…..but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” We, as the voting public of Stevens County get a voice in our community through our vote. A Nine Mile Falls resident stated, “I don’t know how much more we can afford to pay in this economy. I want the kids to have what they need, but I also don’t want to lose my home. I want to be able to put food on the table.” On the other hand, Mr. Baerwald said, “What I do know is that somebody paid for the levy when I was in school, and I was able to access a well-rounded education involving after school activities that allowed me to pursue my dream to become an educator. Good schools grow communities.”