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Tacoma schools: Focus on operations levy first

Post by Kim Bradford on Nov. 17, 2009 at 7:47 pm |
December 22, 2009 2:28 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

No doubt about it, the Tacoma School District needs to get its school renovation program back on track.

The failure of successive capital campaigns in 2006 and 2008 has effectively created a district of haves and have-nots. Some kids go to school in attractive new buildings hard-wired for the latest technology; others attend class in dank and dingy buildings heated by 80-year-old boilers and covered by leaky roofs.

The Tacoma School Board is appropriately eager to get a school-construction measure passed. But before it sends a proposed $140 million capital levy to the ballot next week, the board should consider tweaking its timing.

As important as capital dollars are, the district could get along without them easier than it could survive the loss of the money local taxpayers provide to hire teachers and fund educational programs.

The district’s maintenance and operations levy is due for renewal next year, and the school board is sending it to the February ballot too. Running two measures simultaneously has its advantages. The district pays for one election (or so it hopes), and levy supporters can run one consolidated campaign.

But the downside to doubling down is going bust. Passage of the district’s maintenance and operations levy – which underwrites about a quarter of the district’s annual budget – should be a given. It’s a tax people are already paying, and support for classroom education is typically an easy sell.

But the last time the district paired a operations levy with a capital funding request, both went down. In 2006, the district had to abandon its school construction bond to make a last-ditch attempt to get the operations levy passed.

Tacoma school officials may be betting that the new rule governing school levies will preclude a repeat of 2006’s near-disaster. Levies now need only a simple majority to pass, a much easier bar to clear. Perhaps they are right. The district’s $300 million construction bond in March got a 52 percent yes vote. That wasn’t enough for a bond measure, but it would pass a capital projects levy.

But many Tacomans’ financial prospects are just as bleak, if not bleaker, than they were in March. And voters are bound to notice that the annual cost of the construction measure hasn’t changed. (The school board has trimmed the size of its ask by more than half, but the district would collect the sum in far fewer years.)

Tacoma schools supporters won’t have much opportunity between Thanksgiving and the distribution of mail ballots in January to convince voters to levy a new tax to replace and overhaul aging schools.

Opposition to the capital levy could end up killing the operations levy by association. Rather than go for broke, it might be wiser to run the maintenance and operations levy in February and then return in spring for a vote on school construction.

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