Sound Off: Why we need two school levies

The Whidbey News-Times praised the Oak Harbor School Board for showing “good sense in opting for the single levy aimed at maintaining existing programs.”

Oak Harbor Education Association supported running two levies. A large, diverse and fluid group of educators and community members recommended a renewal levy at a slightly lower rate than presently being collected and a second, enhancement levy at 55 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value.

The committee reviewed the widespread success and acceptance of elementary art and PE programs, hot lunches and classroom support materials. A long list of pent-up needs, topping $6 million in staffing and programs along with another $57 million in accumulated and necessary capital projects, dominated discussions for eight months.

In the spring, a phone survey of likely voters revealed that at least 60 percent would support an average levy rate of $2.32; more than 80 percent said they would support the minimum necessary to capture state matching funds that should go to Oak Harbor but presently go to other communities that are able to pass levies at higher levels. Combining needs with the phone survey results, and keeping in mind that voters will have to decide what to do about pressing construction needs at the high school, the committee decided to recommend a second levy that met some of the district’s unmet needs.

The newspaper and those who support the thinking underpinning the editorial’s argument assert that maintenance and operations levies and construction bonds are “extra.” They are not extra. They are essential and ordinary, like a tank of gas, which is about what a levy at the average rate would cost someone monthly living in an average home. That’s right. If the school board were to ask Oak Harbor citizens to support its schools at a rate that is average — just average — of what other communities provide their school systems, an average Oak Harbor home owner would pay about $464 a year, or about $39 a month. The proposed second levy combined with the first levy would only have cost taxpayers $260 a year, or about $22 a month. That figure is $150/year, $12.50/month.

The problem with the newspaper’s praise of the school board’s decision is that it perpetuates an unrealistic and damaging reality. Many in our community apparently believe that levies and bonds are extra, not necessary, that local communities do not have a responsibility to bring their dollars to complete the amount sent by the state. They do. The formula that generates the basic education apportionment (BEA) does not meet the state constitution’s requirement of making education the “paramount duty” of state funding. The WEA is filing a lawsuit to compel the state to provide full funding to schools.

The Whidbey News-Times erroneously asserted, “Not many people wanted their property taxes to go up in order to pay for someone else’s health care. That’s the state Legislature’s problem, as the state is responsible for basic education including employee benefits.” Subsidizing health care costs and raising teacher pay has becomes a shared responsibility, and local communities such as Seattle, Mukilteo and Snohomish have just completed agreements enhancing teacher compensation. The Legislature has never sent enough money to pay for basic education; that’s precisely why almost every community in the state (including, since 2001, Oak Harbor) asks local taxpayers to support public education.

What’s not paid for by the Legislature? As examples, BEA does not fund buses, sports and extracurricular activities, and at least $1 million in special education instruction and support.

According to two analyses by the Washington Education Association, the Oak Harbor School District spends money more wisely, more frugally, and more conservatively than many other districts - more money going to instruction, less to administration.

WASL is the 4th most stringent exit exam in the nation and Oak Harbor teachers, students, and families are making tremendous efforts and achieving impressive results while working in a school district that spends its money frugally. Through careful management of 1996 bond proceeds and through delivering what was promised in the 2001 M&O levy, the school district proved that it can be trusted to be a good steward of public tax dollars.

Oak Harbor Education Association encourages the Whidbey-News Times to work towards changing a “town famous for rejecting most levies,” and supporting a new, emerging trend first begun with the passage of the 1996 construction bond, continuing through the passage of the first M&O levy in 2001, and revealed in a telephone survey in 2004 that showed strong interest in supporting our own schools at higher than current levels.

Oak Harbor parents do not love their children less or differently than parents elsewhere, they and their neighbors do value the promise of public education, and we all cherish the opportunity that it provides. We are not somehow different or less than other communities. And Oak Harbor can support its schools at needed levels, if given a chance and the right approach.

Peter Szalai is president of the Oak Harbor Education Association.

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