Opinion by Marianne Lincoln
At the kitchen table and over the backyard fence, we all have opinions about what schools should be doing, not doing, spending, not spending, who should be disciplined and who should get a chance to excel.
Public school districts have an enormous number of laws and regulations to follow. State Auditors come in, pour through their books and registers and evaluate them every year.
I grew up in the Bethel School District. I was also a school board member during the housing bust from 2009 to 2012. I have seen school bonds and levies fail, often. I was in school when Bethel started year round school for K to 9, and double shifts in the high school. We had five elementaries and one junior high and one high school then. Now Bethel has four high schools, 6 middle schools, 17 elementaries, an online academy and the Skills Center. Growth is the never-ending legacy of this area. Sadly, no one ever wants to pay for it, not even the ones taking in the permit fees.
In my 64 years, I have learned that the communities that invest in their schools, are better places to live. It’s not the other way around. The communities are made better by making sure they have good schools for kids to attend. Good schools means multiple programs like sports, band, choir, arts and vocational skills. It also means making sure the staff is fairly compensated, given reasonable schedules and opportunities to access continued education for themselves.
Back in 2012, board members across the state were actively watching and involved in the McLeary school funding lawsuit. Everyone tires of running levies every couple of years to make sure the schools have enough funding. Staff, administration, and voters all hate that system. Yet, our legislators keep us in this vicious cycling for dollars. Many school districts breeze though each election. Places with high housing growth are not so lucky. Bethel is one of them.
It is not easy to decide what to cut when funding dries up. Of course, that is true at home for district voters. It is ugly from the school board dais as well. In 2010 and 2011, we cut and cut. We made one commitment, that we would shave a bit from everyone and try not to eliminate anything completely. It’s easy to say swimming and choir programs will go away, but in fact, there are kids whose lives revolve around those programs and they might be lost without them.
It is even easier to tell the administrators to take cuts. They have huge salaries. How does that happen? It happens so the district doesn’t lose good administrators to other districts that pay them more. Salaries are usually set with competitive wage scales. Bethel competes with Tacoma, Seattle, Bellevue and University Place for good administrators. They cannot afford to only hire untrained administrators and lose them as soon as they know what they are doing because of sub-optimal local wages.
School funding is a complex balancing act. The teacher unions (WEA) and public school employees union (PSE) have contract negotiations every couple of years. The talks go on for months before agreements are reached.
Levies are like a contract with the voters. The state has set up the system so there needs to be a monetary stream from levies. If teacher had to go on strike just to keep their same wages the next year, wouldn’t it seem rather odd? Yet, levies are like that. The voters get to say whether it goes up, down or stays the same. The voters can literally say, we want you to lose money. If you said that to the WEA, you would expect a fight, or a strike.
If you turn down the school district, when what they asked was to keep earning the same amount as last year, they also could strike. But what they will begin to strike are pet programs. Poof, that one is gone. Maybe they could put the GKHS Football program on the block. Poof, gone. Don’t be surprised how this may go down if they have to cut. It might get ugly.
As I said, school funding is complex. Taxes are complex. Your property tax pays into a lot of different buckets, fire, libraries, state agencies, county government, transit, conservation, roads and more. Many of those taxes are percentages. Other, like schools are fixed amounts that actually are a lower percentage when the value of your houses go up. Other factors like being unincorporated, a different fire district, transit area or being in a city will change where your property tax is computed and distributed.
Here are some examples from the County Public GIS:
You can see that property tax rates vary within the school district based on rates other tax collecting agencies get in that specific area. Of course, the biggest thing that affects you rate is the assessed value of your home or business. You can appeal your assessment, if you think your value is set too high. You can also get a special rate for being a low income senior, under certain circumstances. Others use timberland or open space classifications to get lower rates. The Assessor Treasurer’s Office can assist with those questions.
It does not go unnoticed that the pandemic has been incredibly difficult for all school employees, students and parents. No one enjoyed going through that and no one wants it back. There were no easy or good answers, everyone was left to deal with it however they could.
Bethel will try to pass the levy renewal again. It is worth it for them to try to keep from having to cut programs. The next Special Election is April 26, 2022. Ballots will go out around April 8. They will tell you, it is just what we had before. Nothing is going up. Well, you know, except for the value of your home. But if you read the County Assessor’s site, you will see they are limited to how much they can increase that by statute too.
Great school districts help sell houses and make house values go up. Poor school districts are harder to sell houses and home values go down. It is a tight market and houses are hard to get. Prices are high and competition for each home is astounding. It is not unusual to have 40 offers on one house right now. Interest rates are climbing, bond rates are going to go down. We will see where this all goes.
In the end, when you say no, you may see your taxes drop a little in a year or two, if house values do not increase. For the kids currently in school, immediate loss or cutbacks in a program may change who participates, who goes home bored, drops out or gets in trouble. Engaged students who have diverse programs and content staff within their school system have a better chance of having a successful educational experience. The best measure of a school system are the outcomes for the kids. Good outcomes and better communities are the best goals.
Schools are expensive, but the success of your children and your neighbors kids are worth it. And I must say, year round school was memorable, but not practical. We need the programs that teach construction and nursing, like the Skills Center has. We need music and performing arts, because they make our environment more pleasant. We want a football, basketball, baseball and wrestling team to cheer on. And of course, the three R’s help us live daily as grown ups.
Where do you cut when the money doesn’t reach? And who gets hurt the most, your wallet or the growing small people trying to become adults one day? It is your balancing act to choose. Make it a wise choice.