Julie McDonald Commentary: Clarifying Need for School Levies During COVID Pandemic


I’ve always supported our local school levies — before having children, while they were in school, and now that they’ve graduated.

But a friend mentioned that much of the money for maintenance and operations levies covers costs for extracurricular activities, which have been canceled for nearly a year, and maintenance inside schools that have primarily been closed.

So where has that money gone? And why do school districts want voters to approve a new levy Feb. 9? 

I decided to ask and learned a lot from two school superintendents — Paul Farris of White Pass School District and Chris Rust of Toledo School District. Both districts have levy requests on the special election ballot this month, as do Evaline and Castle Rock school districts and three fire districts — No. 1 (Onalaska), No. 13 (Curtis), and Riverside (Centralia). Ballots must be postmarked by Feb. 9 or dropped in a ballot box by 8 p.m. that day to be counted.

At White Pass, voters are being asked to replace an expiring levy passed in 2017 with a new three-year levy. The request is for 63 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation, or $126 a year for the owners of a $200,000 home and $189 for owners of a $300,000 home. It would raise $932,927 each of the three years.

“It is important that our communities know that the levy is not for funding programs for this year,” Farris said. “It is for funding programs in the future.”

Farris noted that the costs for teaching during the pandemic “far surpassed” any COVID-19 relief funds received or savings from a shortened athletic season. He noted that the district operated an athletic program for two-thirds of last year, and practices for volleyball, football and cross-country started Monday.

White Pass schools have remained open to teachers since last spring and several needed their curriculum materials and stronger WiFi signal at the schools to teach their students online. The district had to hire more custodial staff to provide additional cleaning because of the virus. 

“WiFi service in many parts of our district is not available, or does not have a strong enough signal for Zoom instruction with a class of students,” Farris said.

To teach its 332 students, the district bought more than 100 Chromebooks and 17 laptops to provide remote teaching. The district also paid for more than 50 hotspots for students and staff members to connect, plus thousands of face masks and disinfectant wipes, gallons of hand sanitizer, handheld thermometers and Plexiglas barriers for the office staff and teachers who requested one. The district also bought swivels to aid teachers who are teaching students in the classroom and those online at the same time. The district hired a staff member and contracted with an online instructional provider to connect families that wanted to continue learning remotely.

To teach all kindergarten through third-grade students in person, the district hired several full-time paraprofessional staff members, Farris said. The federal government also required districts last fall to provide 10 days of paid sick leave to employees who contracted COVID or were exposed to the virus. That program ended Dec. 31.

Starting Monday, high school students returned to school in a hybrid model, which is how students from fourth-grade on are learning. Younger students are still in school every day.

“I know our staff cannot wait until we can get back to ‘normal,’” Farris said.

The Toledo School District, which has nearly 800 students, is asking for a replacement three-year levy to collect $1.1 million in 2022, $1.15 million in 2023, and $1.2 million in 2024. The cost for taxpayers would increase from $1.61 the first year to $1.69 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The owners of a $200,000 home would pay $322 the first year, $330 the second year, and $338 the third year. For the owner of a $300,000 home, those costs would be $483 the first year, $495 the second, and $507 the third year. State and federal apportionment funding is based upon enrollment, and Rust noted that Toledo’s enrollment has dropped 3 percent this year.

“While it may have appeared that schools were closed on March 12, in spite of the shutdown and the suspension of games, many of our athletic teams continued to practice during times when it was allowed,” Rust said. He said conditioning and weight training continued during the summer and fall.

“Our teachers began remote instruction for students on March 13,” Rust said. “While other districts needed to take as much as a week to regroup, Toledo students didn’t miss a day. Our secretaries were in the building answering phone calls, and teachers were in and out making packets of curriculum materials for students who didn’t have internet access.”

During the school closures, he said, maintenance workers and paraeducators repaired things that needed to be fixed and repainted inside the middle and elementary schools. Bus drivers, with help from paraeducators, delivered food to children. 

He noted that in the last normal year of operation, extracurricular activities (sports and clubs) cost $319,000, which is less than a third of the levy amount requested.

“Any savings that we realized during the shutdown was absorbed by additional unbudgeted costs of COVID,” Rust said. The district bought laptops and Chromebooks and contracted for more than 100 hotspots. It purchased additional licenses for online curriculum, subscriptions to online platforms, and new programs to supplement teachers working from home. It bought personal protection equipment for staff members, and connected all families to the internet with a device for student learning.

“We also needed to increase hours for our custodial staff to perform additional cleaning and disinfecting as well as for our bus drivers who are working twice as much due to hybrid teaching conditions now,” Rust said. “This additional expense will come directly from local dollars unless the Legislature votes to approve stabilization funds in this session.”

Rust also mentioned that much of the levy pays for retaining and increasing staff. Toledo employs 48 teachers with an average salary (without benefits) of $77,000 a year because most have more than a decade of experience. That brings teaching costs to $3.7 million, but the state formula allows Toledo only 35.6 teachers and provides $65,216 for each, or about $2.5 million. The local levy and state and federal grants fill in the gap between the two numbers and help keep classroom sizes smaller (around 20 students each).

“Without levy funds, we would need to reduce teaching staff,” Rust said, adding that the district also uses that money to offer a full range of programs — music, art, shop, business, elementary music, robotics, and so on.

He said the state also pays for far fewer classified workers — secretaries, custodians, and paraeducators — than the district employs as well as administrators. The state allows for two principals and a superintendent working three days a week, each funded at $96,000 a year. The district uses levy money and grants to make up the gaps so each building has a principal and the superintendent works full time.

“Taxpayers won’t see any change to their taxes until 2022 when the current levy has expired,” Rust said. “By that time, I hope that we will return to regular order and that our programs will be restored. A no-levy budget would not look like ‘regular order’.”

The district is collecting $895,000 a year now, which was dropped to $865,000 a year after the 2018 McCleary decision that required the state to fully fund basic education. Before that, the district’s levy was $1.1 million. Rust said the State Education Benefits Board started a new health benefits program that required districts to pay $1,000 per employee into a benefit pool, which adversely affected the budget. To pay it, the district borrowed from its reserves, drawing it down far below the unattainable $1.9 million recommended by the state auditor. The district’s reserve is $775,000, and Rust recommended restoring that to $1 million.

“My recommendation to the board was that we restore the level of funding that we had three years ago, and that we make modest increases each year of the measure to offset inflation,” Rust said.

But why increase reserves when families hit by the pandemic are struggling to pay their rents and mortgages?

“I think that this is a prudent proposal, but I also understand that families are struggling and many are out of work,” Rust said. He said it’s important to remember that the levy collection won’t begin until next year. He noted that the state doesn’t pay for extracurricular activities, funds a counselor for only two days a week, and doesn’t pay for special education programming, although federal funding covers some of those costs.

“There are lots of gaps between what our community has come to expect from us and what the state pays for,” Rust said. “That’s why levies are allowed.”


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.