Many anti-levy words, only 1 voice

6 voter pamphlet statements against school taxes were written by Lakewood resident

debbie.cafazzo@thenewstribune.comJanuary 22, 2014 

Gabe Messenger and his fourth-grade classmates work Tuesday in the computer lab at Mountain View Elementary School in Edgewood. Technology in schools is one of the things voters are asked to support in the coming Feb. 11 election.

PETER HALEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

A dozen Pierce County school districts will ask voters next month to continue paying for school operations, or technology, or both.

The operations levies will replace tax measures that expire this year. School officials say that without those lifeline dollars, budget cuts would be inevitable and painful; the levies fund between 20 percent and 25 percent of the annual budgets for most districts.

Local voters are used to seeing such requests every few years. But when they pick up their voter pamphlet for the Feb. 11 election, they might notice something they haven’t seen consistently before.

In nearly every election, opponents lay out reasons for voters to turn thumbs down.

Tax foes have argued against selected local school taxes in the past, but the volume of opposition statements this year is notable.

Several are aimed at Pierce County’s smaller school districts, where voter support for schools has traditionally run strong.

At least six opposition statements — which argue against levies in the Bethel, Dieringer, Franklin Pierce, Puyallup, Sumner and White River school districts — were written by the same man, Robert Brown of Lakewood.

Brown points out that you don’t have to live in a school district to oppose its tax proposals. In fact his district, Clover Park, is one of the few not running a levy in February.

His written arguments are virtually identical in each of the seven districts.

Brown thinks school districts could submit lower levies to voters if they did a better job budgeting.

“We have just got to get spending under control,” Brown said.

Mary Dodsworth, a member of the pro-levy committee in Steilacoom, said she was shocked to receive emails indicating that the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation was soliciting levy opposition statements in Pierce County.

“I believe if you have an issue regarding a local situation, you should work with it on a local basis,” Dodsworth said. “The local people affected should be the ones dealing with it.”

Brown, a leader in the 28th Legislative District’s Republican Party, said his multi-district tax opposition isn’t part of any orchestrated campaign.

“If the community supports the levy and wants to pay increased taxes, fine,” Brown said. “But let’s have a two-way discussion.”

Ballots are scheduled to be mailed out Friday countywide .

At the head of the class, size wise, is Tacoma Public Schools, which is asking for both an operations levy and a technology levy.

“With our poverty rate in Tacoma, approaching 65 percent, it takes extra resources,” said Tacoma School Board President Kurt Miller.

Over the past 10 years he’s been on the board, he said, the district has had to make big cuts and close schools. Employee unions went several years without cost-of-living raises.

Like Tacoma, most of Pierce County’s school districts are asking for money for operations, as well as for technology improvements. Four Pierce County school districts are asking only for operations levies: Eatonville, Fife, Orting and Steilacoom.

Brown claims unions have pressured school boards to “divert” levy funds from student services to pay teachers more.

But levy supporters, like those in Sumner, argue that the supplemental funding is not about pay raises. That district’s pro-levy committee writes that Sumner’s operations levy makes up 20 percent of the general operating budget.

Andy Asmussen, a perennial school tax critic in Puyallup, said he didn’t submit a statement against his district’s operations levy this year; he agrees that the funding cuts that could result would be draconian.

Instead, Asmussen took aim at Puyallup’s second proposal, for capital improvements and technology upgrades. He said it is too expensive and, at six years’ duration, too long.

But supporters of Puyallup’s second ballot measure say the measure would not only bring technology up to date, it would fix roofs, make buildings energy-efficient and earthquake resilient, and fund structural modifications needed for all-day kindergarten.

In the Steilacoom Historical School District, Michael Gorski, a member of the DuPont City Council, said he decided to oppose his district’s levy because: “I just don’t feel like any election should be uncontested.”

He is critical of his district’s increasing budget.

But Dodsworth said the increases in Steilacoom are justified by growing student enrollment, costs associated with programs such as all-day kindergarten — scheduled to expand in coming years due to state requirements — and basic needs including transportation, fuel and textbooks.

Anti-tax advocates point out that local property taxes for schools already make up a large proportion of tax bills — nearly 41 percent of 2013 property taxes collected in Pierce County, according to county records. And Pierce County has the highest average property tax rate in the state.

Those are the kinds of figures that prompted Betsy Tainer to oppose levies in University Place.

“They want more, more, more, more,” she said. “To continually ask for more is not sustainable.”

But Christine Kilduff, president of the University Place School Board, notes that the board — mindful of a still-recovering economy — did not ask for the maximum amount allowed.

Tax opponents say local school districts could soon be getting more state money, as a result of the 2012 state Supreme Court decision in the McCleary case. But district officials note that, so far, the state hasn’t delivered on the McCleary promise.

This month, the court ordered the Legislature to come up with a plan by April 30 to fully fund basic education by 2018. The goal is to stop school districts from having to count on unreliable and unequal local levies.

Kilduff said McCleary “shines a very bright light on the fact that public education of our young citizens has been woefully underfunded.”

“It is against this compelling backdrop that many districts like ours ask the voters to approve levies aimed at sustaining the core of the classroom,” she added.

Proposed tax rates

Rates are dollars per $1,000 of assessed property value, rounded to the nearest cent. Levy amounts are also rounded.

Some school districts also have additional taxes they collect (for bonds or other previously approved measures), but this chart only compares rates for operations tax measures on the Feb. 11 ballot with rates to be paid on operations measures in 2014.

Current rates for technology levies were not available from Pierce County.

Voters approve the levy amounts; the tax rates per $1,000 are estimates, based on projected property values in each school district. If values rise, rates per $1,000 fall. The reverse is also true.

Bethel School District

Operations levy

Rate to be collected in 2014: $4.06

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$5.05 to be collected in 2015$40.1 million

$5.18 to be collected in 2016$41.9 million

$5.31 to be collected in 2017$43.8 million

$5.43 to be collected in 2018$45.7 million

Technology levy

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$0.57 to be collected in 2015$4.5 million

$0.56 to be collected in 2016$4.5 million

$0.55 to be collected in 2017$4.5 million

$0.53 to be collected in 2018$4.5 million

Dieringer School District

Operations levy:Rate to be collected in 2014: $3.80

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$4.06 to be collected in 2015$5.5 million

$4.08 to be collected in 2016$5.7 million

Technology levy

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$1.31 to be collected in 2015$1.7 million

$1.28 to be collected in 2016$1.7 million

$1.25 to be collected in 2017$1.7 million

$1.21 to be collected in 2018$1.7 million

Eatonville School District

Operations levy

Rate to be collected in 2014: $3.86

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$3.87 to be collected in 2015$4.5 million

$3.87 to be collected in 2016$4.7 million

$3.87 to be collected in 2017$4.8 million

$3.87 to be collected in 2018$5 million

Fife School District

Operations levy

Rate to be collected in 2014: $3.07

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$2.92 to be collected in 2015$9.2 million

$2.81 to be collected in 2016$9.3 million

$2.70 to be collected in 2017$9.4 million

$2.60 to be collected in 2018$9.5 million

Franklin Pierce School District

Operations levy:

Rate to be collected in 2014: $5.36

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$5.22 to be collected in 2015$16.7 million

$5.33 to be collected in 2016$17.4 million

$5.34 to be collected in 2017$18 million

$5.31 to be collected in 2018$18.4 million

Technology levy

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$0.44 to be collected in 2015$1.4 million

$0.44 to be collected in 2016$1.4 million

$0.44 to be collected in 2017$1.5 million

$0.44 to be collected in 2018$1.5 million

Orting School District

Operations levy:Rate to be collected in 2014: $4.36

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$4.57 to be collected in 2015$4.1 million

$4.61 to be collected in 2016$4.2 million

Puyallup School District

Operations levy:

Rate to be collected in 2014: $4.12

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$4.28 to be collected in 2015$49.5 million

$4.28 to be collected in 2016$51 million

$4.28 to be collected in 2017$52.5 million

$4.28 to be collected in 2018$54.1 million

Capital improvements/technology levy

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$0.64 to be collected in 2015$7 million

$0.62 to be collected in 2016$7 million

$0.60 to be collected in 2017$7 million

$0.67 to be collected in 2018$8 million

$0.65 to be collected in 2019$8 million

$0.71 to be collected in 2020$9 million

Steilacoom School District

Operations levy:Rate to be collected in 2014: $2.80

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$2.98 to be collected in 2015$7 million

$2.98 to be collected in 2016$7.1 million

$2.98 to be collected in 2017$7.3 million

$2.96 to be collected in 2018$7.4 million

Sumner School District

Operations levy:Rate to be collected in 2014: $3.71

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$3.85 to be collected in 2015$20 million

$3.74 to be collected in 2016$21 million

$3.63 to be collected in 2017$22 million

$3.44 to be collected in 2018$23 million

Technology levy

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$0.48 to be collected in 2015$2.5 million

$0.46 to be collected in 2016$2.6 million

$0.47 to be collected in 2017$2.9 million

$0.47 to be collected in 2018$3.1 million

Tacoma School District

Operations levy:Rate to be collected in 2014: $4.75

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$4.88 to be collected in 2015$86 million

$4.83 to be collected in 2016$86 million

$4.69 to be collected in 2017$86 million

$4.55 to be collected in 2018$86 million

Technology levy

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$0.57 to be collected in 2015$10 million

$0.56 to be collected in 2016$10 million

$0.55 to be collected in 2017$10 million

$0.53 to be collected in 2018$10 million

University Place School District

Operations levy:Rate to be collected in 2014: $4.27

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$5.28 to be collected in 2015$13.6 million

$5.26 to be collected in 2016$13.8 million

$5.21 to be collected in 2017$14 million

$5.19 to be collected in 2018$14 million

Technology/safety improvements levy

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$0.27 to be collected in 2015$705,000

$0.26 to be collected in 2016$680,000

$0.24 to be collected in 2017$635,000

$0.23 to be collected in 2018$625,000

White River School District

Operations levy

Rate to be collected in 2014: $4.01

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$4.17 to be collected in 2015$8.7 million

$4.17 to be collected in 2016$9.1 million

$4.17 to be collected in 2017$9.5 million

$4.17 to be collected in 2018$9.8 million

Technology levy

Proposed/estimated ratesLevy amount

$0.50 to be collected in 2015$1 million

$0.50 to be collected in 2016$1.1 million

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@thenewstribune.com debbie.cafazzo@thenewstribune.com

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