Issaquah, Sammamish residents frustrated as school district seeks maximum tax levy

Local residents and politicians alike are expressing shock and frustration after the Issaquah School District voted to put the maximum possible levy amount on next spring’s ballot.

At the Oct. 11 Issaquah School Board meeting, the board approved three levies for the February 2018 special election. The three levies would begin collection in 2019.

Technology and modernization

A four-year levy for technology and modernization would fund “education technology and critical repairs, school remodeling and updating for safety, security and efficiency,” according to the district. In 2019, the levy would collect 55 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value, for a total of $16,571,000. By 2022, the rate would go down to 52 cents per $1,000 for a total levy collection of $18 million.

“It is absolutely critical to the technology integration and teaching and the experience that we want our students to have in this system,” Superintendent Ron Thiele said of the levy. “It would be impossible for us to do anything close to what we do without this capital levy and tech levy.”

“It has been discussed, digested and worked through at several different angles and several different opportunities by both the board and staff,” Jake Kuper, chief of finance, stated.

“I really appreciate the folks who put their time and energy into that,” Thiele added. “I think we had a really excellent conversation.”

Thiele said that the district is looking to expand to a one-to-one system, where there is one computer per child.

Board directors said that the state contributes $200 per student for technology, but Kuper pointed out that the district spends about $14 million on technology, which equates to about $680 per student.

Transportation

A transportation levy, which would only be collected in 2019, would take 7 cents of every $1,000 of value for a levy total of $2 million. This levy would go toward the purchase of new school buses.

Kuper called this levy “the single-best leverage of taxpayer money we have in the system,” noting that about 70 buses would be purchased.

Due to the growth of the district’s population and the age of the current buses, Kuper said that new buses are a necessity.

Education and operations

A four-year educational program and operations levy would charge $1.58 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2019, for a total levy amount of $47,250,000. By 2022, this would go up to $1.65 per $1,000, for a total collection of $58 million. This is the maximum amount that the district is allowed to collect for this levy.

“We need to be able to offer the level of educational programming and services that we do currently, and actually, I think there’s a number of things the community would like to see us do more,” Thiele said.

School board President Lisa Callan said that special education may be funded by this levy, as the state does not fully-fund special education.

“We don’t know if our levy dollars will or will not be allowed at this point, but we do know we have a federal mandate to pay for it, so we’re gonna be paying for it somehow, some way, and right now the only way if it’s not coming from state is to use the levy dollars,” she said.

“We do know that there is significant gaps in the funding model that is being represented,” Callan said of the state’s solution to McCleary, pointing out that categories such as teacher salaries also need to be backfilled.

“They say they fully fund it — they fully funded their model and we don’t know exactly how that model is going to pan out,” Director Marnie Maraldo said.

”We have traditionally made the gap up with levy dollars,” she said.

“We were put into this situation by the Legislature,” Director Harlan Gallinger said. “They’re the ones who made the decision to swipe our levy dollars and then leave the problem with us to figure out how we’re going to engage our community.”

Public criticism

In the past, school bonds and levies have passed at overwhelmingly high rates in the Issaquah School District. The $533.5 million school bond passed in April 2016 received approval from 71 percent of voters.

However, in the wake of this summer’s McCleary compromise in the Legislature, voting residents and politicians alike are chastising the district for seeking the maximum amount on the educational programs and operations levy.

45th Legislative District Sen. Mark Mullet, who has sat on the Senate’s Education Committee for five years, told the Reporter that the $58 million increase that the state is giving the Issaquah School District as part of the McCleary decision is “the largest increase for the Issaquah School District in state history.”

Out of 295 school districts in the state, he said, Issaquah is in the top five in receiving state funding increases.

“The Issaquah School District is getting an extra $58 million than they were,” he said. “They have to factor in that state money … The state money, I firmly believe, is capable of paying for [any extra] programs.”

Former 45th Legislative District Rep. and former Issaquah School Board Director Chad Magendanz stated during public comment at the meeting that the Legislature “spent a lot of time on working on a McCleary decision.”

Magendanz pointed out that for the average single-family household, a levy at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value would mean a $318 property tax increase.

“People are obviously very sensitive about that right now,” Magendanz said. “They’re looking at new taxes from Sound Transit, they’re seeing new gas taxes, new tolls on the road. I wouldn’t say sentiment is particularly positive towards that investment right now.”

Mullet says that going for the max would give residents “the second-highest property-tax increase in the state.”

“A lot of people’s incomes haven’t skyrocketed at the same rate as home values,” he said, noting that this would be a burden for many families.

Mullet does not want to see local levies cut out by any means, but simply reduced to ease the burden on taxpayers. The increase in state funding for schools will cause residents’ state property taxes to go up 90 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, from $1.95 to $2.85.

To make up for this, Mullet would like to see 90 cents cut from local levies “so that the taxpayer is protected.”

Jim Berry of Sammamish said to the Reporter that he and his family moved to the area 25 years ago for the quality schools, and that he has previously been a big proponent of school levies. However, he believes that with the increase in state funding, hitting residents with such a spike in property taxes is extravagant.

“The school district is taxing its people more than is necessary,” he said. “It’s in contradiction to the McCleary decision that tried to establish some equity … It’s not in the spirit of the McCleary decision.”

With 8 to 9 percent of students on free and reduced lunch, he said, there are definitely families in the district who will be hit hard by that increase in expenses.

“They’re raising money they don’t need,” he said. “To match [the state’s] revenue, they could put up about half as much [for a levy] and they would’ve still been able to have all of the programs they have in the past.”

“If you get greedy and go for the max $1.50 [per $1,000 of assessed value], I think you’re going to see a defeat coming ahead,” Magendanz told the board.

“While I certainly appreciate what we’ve heard from community members … the challenges I’m having is that there are a lot of assumptions being made about how we’re going to get this windfall of money,” Thiele said.

“We can’t make our numbers reconcile with those of the state,” he said, adding, “Our numbers have gotten closer together, but they’re still not there.”

Mullet said that he doesn’t understand why there is any uncertainty about receiving the $58 million from the state.

“We sent out extra money in both 2013 and 2015, and they hired people [with that money],” he said. “[The money] was reliable during the last two budget cycles, so what’s making it unreliable this time?”

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