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Crucial school levies on the ballot

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Jan. 12, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
January 12, 2010 8:11 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

If you live in the South Sound, chances are there’s a school levy on your ballot Feb. 9. Please don’t overlook it.

These levies – all of which would simply renew property taxes previously approved by voters – make all the difference between healthy school districts and distressed ones.

The Legislature is required by the Washington Constitution to fund “basic education,” but lawmakers’ definition of “basic” has little to do with the common sense definition. Money from the state typically funds about 80 percent of what districts actually do. Without the additional 20-or-so percent provided by levies, they wouldn’t be able to deliver much of what children need.

The failure of a levy (it takes two consecutive rejections to permanently kill one) throws a district into the equivalent of shock. The remaining funding must be devoted to survival-level operations. At direct risk are the extra teachers needed to keep class sizes manageable, school nurses and counselors, bus transportation, special education, athletics and anything else extracurricular, music, art, drama, classroom supplies.

And much else. A district without local levy support may even have to dispense with such niceties as textbooks for individual students.

Losing one dollar out of five would leave almost any organization reeling. But a school system isn’t just any organization; when it reels, the futures of young people reel with it.

These routine operational levies do not fund school construction. That requires a separate ballot measure, and both the Tacoma and Clover Park districts have such capital proposals on the Feb. 9 ballot. We’ll discuss them separately.

Some school districts seek special technology levies that allow them to keep their information systems up to date and provide classrooms with computer equipment. Federal Way is asking its voters for a technology levy, as are the Franklin Pierce and Fife districts. Each of these would continue or reinstate a previously approved tax. For students heading toward a tech-intensive job market, familiarity with computer systems is one of the basics.

The Tacoma School District is asking its citizens to continue its routine – but essential – operational levy. So are the school systems of Puyallup, Bethel, Sumner, University Place, Franklin Pierce, Steilacoom, White River, Fife, Dieringer and Orting.

The devoted citizens campaigning for these measures this year are worried about two things: confusion and complacency.

Confusion may arise from all the talk of raising state taxes in Olympia. This point needs emphasis: The proposed school taxes are not new; they are either continuations or reinstatements of revenue measures already approved. The operational levies would not spike property taxes; they would merely maintain the crucial funding that now exists.

The complacency could result from the fact that levies can now be approved by a simple majority of the vote – 50 percent plus one – rather than the 60 percent of years past. That could lull some into letting their ballots lie under a pile of junk mail until it’s too late.

But 50 percent is no slam dunk, as any number of close elections will attest. To kill any one of these crucial levies, all it will take is enough school supporters to assume it will pass without their help – and forget to put their ballots in the mail.

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