Guest column: Despite uncertainty, most school levies make the grade

Many state lawmakers may view what happened on Election Night (Feb. 13) as a sign they didn’t screw things up too badly for their local school districts with the McCleary fix they cobbled together.

Before ballot counting began, school district leaders expressed worry, even fear, of a massive number of levy failures after lawmakers cranked up the property tax rate in the 2017 session then declared schools fully funded.

Across the state, 154 districts asked voters to approve multi-year property tax levies to pay for educational programs and daily operations. All but 10 of those measures were passing on Feb. 14.

While the margin may be less than in the past in some districts, the apparent 93.5 percent success rate seems to indicate voters continue to stand by their local schools even if they are feeling angst about rising taxes and are wondering if the state is covering its constitutional obligations as the Supreme Court demanded.

But in Snohomish and King counties, the results reveal the “public” in public education is less certain about what it’s being asked to pay for schooling.

Four of those potential levy failures are in Snohomish County school districts — Darrington, Lake Stevens, Marysville and Snohomish — and three are in King County school districts — Kent, Tahoma and Snoqualmie Valley.

Districts in Grant, Klickitat and Mason counties also are facing setbacks though a surge of support in late-arriving ballots could turn the situation around, based on a statewide tally of data compiled by researchers at Piper Jaffray & Co. of Seattle, an investment banking firm which assists on financing measures.

Now the situation gets dicey in those districts.

They can go back to voters in the April 24 special election. They have until Feb. 23 to get on the ballot.

Their challenge is how do they change minds of enough voters in the next two months to get a different outcome.

Theoretically they could trim their levy to soften the financial blow. That could imperil programs and destabilize a district’s financial future.

It’s more likely the levy will remain the same. District leaders will need to better explain where those dollars show up on the balance sheet for education.

And it’s going to be a different conversation in every community.

For example, in Lake Stevens, voters might have felt everyone was reaching into their wallets.

First, they’re getting the bill this month for their property taxes which are going up an average of 27 percent in that community this year. Then they get a ballot seeking money to build a new library, the school district asking for money to pay for tech improvements and day-to-day operations.

If there’s a silver lining, the school operations levy on Tuesday was failing by just 98 votes with ballots still to count.

Darrington School District leaders rolled the dice by asking for a levy rate above the cap set by lawmakers. It probably didn’t help voters’ mood to see the Darrington Fire District with a big ask, which, by the way, got turned down as well.

And in Snohomish School District, levies are a historically tough sell. It’s where the last double levy failure occurred a quarter century ago. They will simply have to ramp up their outreach.

And these districts will hope the Legislature doesn’t do anything in the session’s final three weeks to make a difficult situation any worse.

Contact The Herald (Everett) columnist Jerry Cornfield at 360-352-8623, jcornfield@herald or on Twitter, @dospueblos.

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