Voters within the bounds of the Spokane Public Schools district (SPS) are receiving ballots by mail for the upcoming special election on Feb. 9. With the existing levy expiring, voters will decide whether to approve the district’s school levy replacement proposition that will begin in 2022 and last through 2024.
A levy is a short-term property tax on local voters that provides a school district with funding not allocated to it by the state.
“It fills the gap between state funding and the funding needed to fully run and educate a school district's kids,” said Mark Anderson, associate superintendent at SPS. The district runs levies on a three-year cycle.
Levies fund essential school programs including special education services, athletics and arts education as well as critical staff, like behavior specialists, nurses and counselors. While the state provides partial funding for these programs, levies allow these services to become widespread throughout the district and provide lower student-to-faculty ratios for such services.
Some of the most significant factors impacting voters' choices are related to COVID-19.
“These are tough times. And we have people on unemployment. We have businesses closing because of the pandemic,” Anderson said.
But approving the levy might give the district the best chance to provide students with normalcy in the coming years.
“If the levy doesn't pass, kids will come back to school after the pandemic, and they won't get [a normal environment]," Anderson said. "They won't have sports. They won't have music. They won't have art. They won't have librarians. So, it's this unique time that when everybody wants normal, that it provides that starting next year."
Levy tax rates for 2019-2021 have been $1.50, $1.60 and $1.54 per $1,000 of assessed property value, respectively, funding 13.6% of the district’s total budget. SPS’s proposition would increase those rates to $2.40, $2.45 and $2.50 providing the district with an estimated $65.7 million in 2022, $73.8 million in 2023 and $82.1 million in 2024.
Although higher than the previous three years, these values are still lower than in years prior. From 2016-2018, for example, those tax rates were $4.01, $3.96 and $3.79 per $1,000 of assessed property value, respectively.
The state of schools as students continue to systematically return to in-person instruction has also caused some taxpayers to believe that the current quality of instruction does not warrant a tax increase, especially given the financial impacts of the pandemic.
Others have seen teachers working harder and more creatively than ever before. Professor of Teacher Education Suzann Girtz, who oversees GU teacher candidates in the field, has seen cooperating teachers strive to maintain normalcy.
"I'm thinking about in particular, a science teacher at a local high school who is literally bagging up lab supplies and driving them to his students' classes,” Girtz said.
Brynn Williams, a senior psychology major with teacher certification and an endorsement in biology, has seen her cooperating teacher completely adapt her skill set in a fully remote learning environment.
“She’s working so hard," Williams said. "This isn’t easy at all. I don’t think teaching is ever easy, but she is working day and night and putting in so much effort and just wants to help these kids and teach to her best of abilities. There are just so many other obstacles. You don’t know what’s going on in a kid’s life, it’s hard to contact children, [there are] technology issues.”
Williams has also been personally challenged with the task of teaching remotely.
“I feel like I have a lot of lesson ideas and natural things I would do if I were teaching in-person,” Williams said. “But then how to make that accessible and really available online is really hard.”
Though it may seem like a K-12 replacement levy has minimal effects on higher education, there are practical considerations for GU students to consider.
The levy currently provides funding for 88% of school nurses, 67% of technology staff and 26% of school counselors, all jobs that GU students may seek post-graduation.
“Spokane Public Schools is one of the largest employers in Spokane County," Girtz said. "Gonzaga's a big employer too. So these are two institutions sitting in each other's backyards that are feeding each other.”
By being involved in the levy vote, “we're making a home of good jobs for our students when they come out of their Gonzaga experience,” Girtz said.
Girtz believes approving the levy aligns with Gonzaga’s mission.
“It's the programs and the extracurriculars serving populations that might be more vulnerable and have more needs," Girtz said. "And isn't that part of our Gonzaga mission? To serve those in need? I'm not sure that there's a line in our mission statement that this wouldn't fit.”
With just under two weeks until Feb. 9 college-age students can still learn more about the upcoming special election. GU students who vote outside of Spokane can look into special elections in their home districts.
“Most school districts in the state are running replacement levies, bonds, capital levies," Anderson said. "I would encourage [college voters] to know what's going on back home. And make sure to vote.”
Girtz encourages GU students to vote in the special election because of the relationship between GU and its surrounding community.
“We're just coming off of MLK day. And I find it resonates with me when he said, ‘We're caught in a network of mutuality. Our collective fate is intertwined,’” Girtz said.