Amid pandemic politics and parent pushback, CK schools will try again on school levy

FILE — A sign points the way to the ballot drop at Central Kitsap School District's Jenne-Wright Administration Center in Silverdale in October 2020. The school district is asking voters to approve its school support levy in an April 26 special election after a similar measure failed in February.
FILE — A sign points the way to the ballot drop at Central Kitsap School District's Jenne-Wright Administration Center in Silverdale in October 2020. The school district is asking voters to approve its school support levy in an April 26 special election after a similar measure failed in February.

As the Feb. 8 special election approached, history suggested Central Kitsap School District's two-year school support levy would earn a collective thumbs-up from voters.

After all, the last time a school levy failed in Central Kitsap was back in February 1997. Two months later, in April of 1997, the tables turned and the levy passed. Successful levy measures followed in 1999, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2019.

“Our community has supported a levy for more than 20 years, and we are grateful for this investment in our schools," Central Kitsap School District Superintendent Erin Prince told the Kitsap Sun prior to the levy vote in February.

Results from the February special election reveal that the willingness of Central Kitsap voters to invest in a school district that serves over 11,000 students is suddenly in doubt.

While Bainbridge, Bremerton and North Kitsap school districts celebrated levy successes, CKSD saw 51.4% of the 15,024 votes go against its levy, which sought to collect a maximum of $20 million in 2023 and $20 million in 2024 (with a non-adjustable rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value for property owners).

The district's current three-year levy — with the same $1.50 tax rate — expires at the end of 2022.

CKSD's two-year levy measure is back on the ballot for the upcoming special election on April 26. Ballots are expected to be mailed out no later than Friday, according to the Kitsap County Auditor's office.

If Central Kitsap's first levy failure in 25 years caught people's attention, a second failure would bring significant, real-life changes to the largest school district in Kitsap County. Districts can only run levy measures twice per calendar year.

“We are making a couple different scenarios: one for the levy passing and one for the levy not passing," CKSD assistant superintendent Doug Newell told the audience at a community levy forum at Klahowya Secondary School on March 21. “We are going to have to make tough choices. There are some things that are “must-fund,” but, bottom line, (a levy failure) will impact our students’ learning at some level across the district.”

District pushing to inform voters

Since February's special election, the district has taken strides to try to better inform levy voters by holding Facebook Live question-and-answer sessions and in-person community forums (the final one is April 14 at 6 p.m. at Central Kitsap High School).

"We need to listen better, not just hear," CKSD Superintendent Erin Prince said during the March 21 gathering at Klahowya. "This is a step in that direction."

CKSD officials know what's at stake if the levy fails. They also know how rare it is, generally speaking, for voters to reject levies.

According to the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction data, out of the 295 public school districts in the state, only 11 failed to bring in enrichment funding in 2021.

North Mason School District was one of those districts, as it experienced a double levy failure in 2020. As a result, the district trimmed its 2020-21 budget by roughly $4 million and eliminated 18 teaching positions (NMSD voters passed a four-year levy in November, enabling the district to start collecting funds in 2022).

It's been nearly three decades, but Central Kitsap experienced a double levy failure in 1994, back when school levies needed at least 60% voter approval; now that number is 50% plus one vote.

The failure resulted in the district needing to cut $5.4 million from its $68.8 million budget for the 1994-1995 school year. Some employees lost their jobs (the Kitsap Sun reported at the time that 14.1% of salaries for administrative staff and 4.9% of salaries for all other staff categories were cut). Other cuts included five high school sports programs, more than 30 coaching positions and all eighth-grade athletics. Funding for transportation, textbooks/supplies/materials and teacher training was also affected.

Similar cuts will need to be considered and voted on by the school board should the April vote fail. Some decisions require haste as layoff notices for teachers are required by state law to be sent out no later than May 15.

The district's current operating budget is roughly $170 million.

"If you are going to cut 10% of your budget, that comes out of programs and people," said Bruce Richards, who served on Central Kitsap's school board for 19 years until recently retiring. Richards helped craft the levy support statement in the local voters' pamphlet and is hoping for a positive result later this month.

“If the levy doesn’t pass," he said. "It’s going to be bleak.”

How does Central Kitsap use levy funds?

It's fairly common for school district officials to use the phrase "bridging the gap" when it comes to levy funding: a majority of enrichment programs and positions not funded by the state or federal government are covered by local levies. This includes arts, athletics and clubs, special education support, counseling, transportation, food services, security, technology and other student services.

“This is what we do to help try to bridge the gap on providing a well-rounded education for all of our students," Newell said. “It’s that local community piece, that’s been present for years, that allows us to have a local community voice in the things that our school district provides.”

In Central Kitsap, levy funding covers a majority of the $24.8 million spent on enrichment each year. Here are some specifics on how that funding breaks down, based on data provided by the district:

•The state funds 456 teachers and 64 support staff professionals. The levy pays for 80 additional staff positions in schools.

•State and federal funds cover 80% of special education costs. The levy funds the remaining 20% of those costs.

•The state doesn't fund after-school arts, athletics or clubs. The levy funds these at 100%.

•The state funds two safety/security positions and 57 grounds, maintenance and custodial staff. The levy funds 11 additional safety staff and 24 additional operations staff.

•The state funds 85% of transportation costs. The levy funds the remaining 15% of these costs.

•The state funds 40% of the district's technology staff and none of the cost for Chromebooks for each student. The levy covers 60% of staff and all Chromebook expenditures.

Levy funding also pays for 24 of the district's 36 librarians and three of the district's 24 counselors.

This graph shows how Central Kitsap School District uses local levy funding to pay for enrichment programs and positions.
This graph shows how Central Kitsap School District uses local levy funding to pay for enrichment programs and positions.

Should the upcoming levy pass, Newell said the district doesn't expect to collect the maximum $20 million allowed in collection year 2023. The figure would be closer to $18 million.

A failure would result in more than just $18 million in levy funding lost. CKSD would also lose qualification for an estimated $11 million in federally apportioned Heavy Impact Aid, which the school board has designated for maintaining and repairing buildings, and $1.5 million in state-apportioned Local Effort Assistance. Those two funding sources disappear without a local levy in place.

Reasons people voted no?

If the tensions exhibited at Central Kitsap school board meetings over the past year or so are any indication, the reasoning behind February's levy failure can't be pinned on any one issue.

But the talk has rarely involved the simple desire for taxpayers to save a bit more money. This goes beyond finances.

"It’s about your conduct and how you’re running this district," said one unidentified commenter said during a board meeting on March 23.

CKSD has seen dividing lines form among its community members on several fronts. In August 2021, board member Rob MacDermid apologized for offensive Facebook posts that were political in nature. In September 2021, board member Drayton Jackson defended the district's stance on critical race theory on the same night protesters showed up to the district's Barker Creek location.

CKSD's handling of gender and equity issues has also been criticized by stakeholders on both sides. In the fall of 2021, the district removed a "Love Has No Gender" poster from an elementary school library and pulled "Gender Queer: A Memoir" from the Olympic High School library. In December 2021, the district reversed its stance on both the poster and book.

Damon Williams, a member of the committee that crafted the argument against the levy in the local voters' pamphlet, said he believes leadership and decision-making are key factors at the heart of voters' reluctance to support CKSD's levy.

People "are dissatisfied with CKSD's policies with regard to social issues, parents' rights, teachers and administrators advocating their own social and political views in schools, district lack of openness and transparency with regard to policies and priorities, and general dismissiveness of community concerns," Williams said.

Williams also said there are voters who feel that public school systems have lacked "transparency in terms of the nature of their spending, have failed to demonstrate a return on investment and don't feel any compunction to justify their demands to the taxpaying public."

Pandemic playing a role in levy struggles

Olympic Educational Service District Superintendent Greg Lynch, who served as CKSD superintendent from 2004-2013, also believes the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in voter attitudes toward public schools, which have had to navigate a number of issues over the past three years, including online teaching and learning, masks, vaccines and on-site COVID-19 testing.

Lynch's belief is supported by the fact that Central Kitsap wasn't alone in seeing a levy fail in February. Numerous other school districts around the state — Bethel, Evergreen, Granite Falls, Kennewick, La Center, Marysville, Monroe, Snohomish, Stanwood-Camano, Sultan — experienced the same levy failures and are hoping for reversals on April 26.

“Across the nation, people have been embattled by COVID," Lynch said. “People feel like they’ve lost a lot of control. And this vote … is an individual action where they actually can exert some control.”

Lynch argues, however, that with learning recovery now a major priority for schools, now is not the time for voters to be taking funding away from districts and their ability to serve students' various needs.

"You are basically doing harm to children," Lynch said, "because you are forced to cut programs that are a major part of our educational system."

Addressing board members last month, Central Kitsap High senior Keely Riggs talked about why the April 26 vote is so important.

“I would like to think that we can all unite behind the idea that every child deserves a chance to succeed in school," Riggs said. “Local levies give funding to everything that makes school meaningful for so many students. For many of my classmates who struggle to find connection, the activities (that) levies support bring them together.”

Riggs said her heart breaks a little at the thought of bus drivers or counselors losing their jobs, or losing funding for things like drama or music.

“I’m reminded by something my ninth-grade band teacher told my class: 'When something big happens in our life, we do not do a math problem, we listen to music,'" Riggs said. "When there is a funeral or graduation, music brings us together. Music is a force that propels us through life and I don’t want to imagine a world that doesn’t prioritize it.

"In times like these when everything is so polarized," Riggs continued, "we must support the things that bring us together. We must support this levy.”

This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Amid pandemic politics and parent pushback, CK schools will try again on school levy