Ballots are out. What Tri-Cities school districts have on the line this election
There’s a lot on the line for several school districts around the Tri-Cities when voters begin marking their ballots this week for the Feb. 14 special election.
Five school districts including Kennewick are asking voters to renew operating levies that help fund educational programs and services not paid for by the state or federal government. In Kennewick, with more than 19,000 students, the levy accounts for 12% of its annual budget.
And Richland and Pasco schools are asking voters for money to start work on their third high schools — though they are going about it in different ways.
Some 39,000 ballots were mailed out to Franklin County voters this week and 118,000 ballots in Benton County.
In Washington state, bonds are for building schools and facilities, and levies are for learning and education programs.
Bonds require a “super majority” of district voters to pass, which is 60%. While levies need a majority — more than 50% — for approval.
Kennewick’s 3-year levy
Kennewick School District will ask voters to pass a three-year, nearly $72 million levy to fund student learning and staffing, health and safety programs, instructional support, maintenance, special education support and athletics and extracurricular activities.
If it passes, Washington state would contribute an additional $15 million annually, as well.
Because of a double levy failure last year, Kennewick stopped collecting local levy dollars at the start of 2023. And, as a result, the district will miss out on $38 million in annual funding unless a new levy is passed.
“In terms of the impact to students on the budget cuts we’ve made, it’s really touched all areas of the district,” said Kennewick Superintendent Traci Pierce.
“We’ve reduced district administration positions, secretarial support positions in the district office, maintenance and operations positions, teaching positions we haven’t filled.... On the non-staff side of the cuts we’ve made, the biggest reduction was in the curriculum budget.”
The district was able to avoid detrimental cuts to education and programming this school year making those budget reductions, dipping into its reserve funds and using one-time COVID relief dollars.
If the levy fails this year, district officials will be forced to make those cuts to staff and programs in safety and health, athletics and extracurricular activities, student learning, and instructional support.
The levy will also help pay for an expansion of the district’s school safety programs, allowing the district to place three more school resource officers in middle schools and a limited commission officer in all 17 elementary schools. All of these officers would be armed.
The district already has five Kennewick police officers currently serving as school resource officers in its high schools and middle schools.
The funding would also pay for graduation success coordinators who help high schoolers to earn their diplomas.
These staffers reach out to hundreds of students every day who are in jeopardy of slipping through the cracks. They keep students on track by scheduling tutoring, helping families with community resources, and keeping them engaged with their school work.
It’s impactful work that has resulted in steady increases in the percentages of students graduating in four and five years.
The levy would raise $23 million in 2024, $23.85 million the second year and $24.7 million the final year. The estimated rate will range from about $1.73 per $1,000 of assessed property value the first year to about $1.63 per $1,000 the third year.
The total annual cost for a home valued at $300,000 would be $519 in 2024, $504 in 2025, and $489 in 2026.
Pasco school bond
Since 2000, student enrollment has more than doubled in Pasco schools.
And Chiawana High School — the state’s largest public high school — is bursting at the seams.
Last summer, the district added six portables to the campus. About 1,800 high schoolers are being taught this school year in portables between both Chiawana and Pasco High School, the state’s sixth-largest high school.
One of the state’s fastest-growing communities, Pasco will likely grow by another 50,000 people over the next 20 years.
In anticipation of that growth, the school district is asking for a 21-year, $195.5-million bond starting in 2024.
The proposed measure would pay for:
Building a third comprehensive high school near Burns Road and Road 60.
Construction a small career and college academy in East Pasco.
Improving athletic fields and facilities, including construction of a new fastpitch field at Pasco High School.
Modernizing career and technical education classrooms at Chiawana and Pasco high school.
Buying land for future schools.
Owners of a home valued at $300,000 would pay about $93 a year.
If it passes, Pasco plans to open the new high school to serve 2,000 students in fall 2025.
The career and college academy for 600 high school students would also open that year.
Richland capital improvement levy
Richland School District is asking voters to pass a six-year, $23 million capital improvement levy to support school safety and begin pre-design development for a third high school.
If passed, about two-thirds of that money would go to build main entrance security vestibules and relocation of some administrative offices in eight schools, including Hanford and Richland high schools.
Funding would also pay for staff threat assessment training, expansion of surveillance equipment to all school campuses, and partnerships with security experts.
The other one-third of the money will be allocated to develop and design:
A third comprehensive high school to be built in West Richland.
A joint campus facility for River’s Edge High School and Pacific Crest Online Academy.
A building expansion of Three Rivers HomeLink.
The owner of a home valued at $400,000 would be about $124 annually, or $10.33 a month.
Richland Superintendent Shelley Redinger said the decision to run a capital levy this year is a “measured” and “proactive” approach that quickly addresses safety concerns while planning for longer term facility needs.
It’s also a tax-sensitive approach that will allow the district to better plan for their third high school.
“It is critically important in that we need to keep moving forward with our facilities, and I feel this is a really good approach,” Redinger said.
But Richland School District will also need to come back to voters next year asking for a bond to pay for construction of its third high school.
“We don’t want to get to the point where we have thousands of kids outside in portables,” said Ty Beaver, Richland’s director of communications. “We’re trying to be as proactive as we can and as thoughtful as we can for our students and staff.”
Finley 2-year levy
Finley School District is asking voters to renew a two-year, $2.9 million levy to pay for athletics, extracurricular activities, maintenance, staffing (including nurses and counselors), instructional supplies and curriculum, and technology equipment.
The proposal would tax property owners $2.25 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2024 and $2.27 per $1,000 in 2025.
For a home valued at $300,000, that annual tax bill would come out to $675 in 2024 and $681 in 2025.
The rates are about 8 to 10 cents lower or about $120,00 less than levies proposed last year.
Local levy funding and the associated matching money from Washington state make up about 8% of the district’s total revenue.
Finley was forced to make budget cuts to several programs this school year in response to last year’s double levy failure. It put curriculum adoptions on hold and made cuts to several sports teams.
If the levy passes, the district says it will be able to resume those programs, as well as reduce class sizes, improve facility upkeep and increase opportunities in music and arts programs.
Ki-Be 2-year levy
Kiona-Benton City School District is asking voters to pass a two-year, $3.61 million operations levy that would replace its current one.
The measure would collect about $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2024 and 2025, and pay mostly for athletics, teachers and for support staff like nurses and counselors.
Owners of a housed assessed at $300,000 would pay about $450 each year.
School tax rates have been on a steady decline since 2017, the district says.
Othello 3-year levy
Othello School District — which overlaps into a small sliver of north Franklin County — will ask voters to renew a three-year, $9.17 million operations levy to fund staff salaries, athletics, building maintenance and technology.
The levy would replace an existing one set to expire at the end of this year.
The expected rate would be $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. The owner of a home valued at $300,000 would be about $450 each year.
This levy and the state match attributes to about 11% of the school district’s total budget and covers programs not funded by state and federal basic funding.
Paterson 3-year levy
Paterson School District, which teaches about 143 students from pre-K through eighth grade, is asking voters to pass a three-year, $1.1 million operations levy.
The proposal would tax 68 cents on every $1,000 of assessed value. The cost would be about $204 a year on a home valued at $300,000.
The money will pay for security enhancements, transportation, technology, upgrades to its food services, extracurricular activities and keep class sizes small.
How to vote
▪ No postage is needed to return ballots through the U.S. Postal Service. Or, use one of several county-certified drop boxes throughout Benton and Franklin counties.
▪ Register to vote by contacting your county auditor’s office or go online at votewa.gov.
Voters decide whether or not to approve the total amount, not the estimated tax rate that’s listed, which is calculated with forecasts in the expected property tax assessment.
Tax rates can fluctuate slightly due to changes in assessed value, or due to lending market interest rates in the case of bonds.