The Centralia School District will place its levy proposal on the April special election ballot in a second attempt to pass the measure, the Centralia School Board decided Wednesday.
As of the Feb. 15 count, the most-recent as of Thursday afternoon, the measure was failing 2,530 to 2,415, or 51.16% to 48.84%. There were only an estimated 27 ballots left for the Lewis County Auditor’s Office to record before election certification on Friday.
If approved, the measure would renew the district’s existing levy for two years at a higher amount, allowing the district to collect no more than $6.7 million in 2024 and no more than $7.6 million in 2025 for educational programs and operations.
The district’s existing levy, which expires at the end of 2023, allows it to collect no more than $4.6 million for the current year.
The proposal is for the same rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value that voters approved in 2021, but due to increased property valuations, the rate would bring in a higher collection amount than permitted by the existing levy.
Centralia School District administrators and school board members were uncertain Wednesday exactly what factors led to the levy’s failure on the February ballot, but initial feedback from community members indicates a perceived lack of clear communication from the district about what the levy funds.
“We need to go out there and address the people who are uncomfortable and try to figure out how it is that we can explain what we’re doing and why it’s critical,” said School Board Chair Tim Browning during the district’s regular board meeting in Centralia on Wednesday
Tax rates and increased property valuations were another factor against the levy, said Superintendent Lisa Grant.
“I had a couple conversations this weekend around, not frustration with the Centralia School District, but the overall tax structure, and that we don’t control,” Grant told the school board Wednesday.
The school board’s deliberation on Wednesday was not about whether or not to re-run the measure or adjust the rate, but rather about which special election ballot to place it on: April or August.
State law allows school districts to run two ballot measures in a calendar year, meaning the district has just one more opportunity to try and pass a levy before the existing levy expires at the end of the year.
While waiting until the August special election to run the measure would give the district more time to figure out what went wrong with the February election and do more to remedy it, budget proposals are due in July. Running the measure in August would mean the district would need to draft its budget for the 2023-2024 school year before it knows the levy results.
“If we’re not going to run a levy in April, we have to design a budget that says we have no levy money. And that’s a really important discussion to have with our community,” said board member Vicki Jackson.
Because levy collections run on calendar years and not school years, the budget for the 2023-2024 school year would still include about $2.3 million from the levy that expires at the end of this year. But that budget would still have to include roughly $2.3 million in proposed cuts, which would likely have significant impacts to staffing and enrollment even if the levy does pass in August.
Those impacts stem from decisions district employees and families make during the summer between school years about what schools they want to start the year at in September.
“I feel like, either we know that we passed a levy in April versus knowing in August. I would rather know in April. I think staffers would rather know in April than waiting for August. I think parents and guardians would rather know in April than August,” said Jackson.
The board ultimately voted 4-1 in favor of placing the measure on the April ballot, with board member Mandi McDougall as the one dissenting vote.
While McDougall did not explain the reasoning behind her vote, other board members had expressed concerns earlier in the meeting about how little time there is before the April special election for the district to connect with the community and make the changes necessary to give the measure a better chance of passing.
“We can’t fail this one, so we have to find a way to make that happen,” Browning said.
The Centralia School District operated without levy dollars between December 2020 and the 2022 levy collection cycle — leading to layoffs last summer — after multiple attempts to pass a replacement levy failed at the ballot box.
The levy’s apparent failure has put the Centralia School District on the state’s “watch list,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said during a media event in Olympia last week.
That list consists of 20 to 30 districts who have had multiple levy failures, significant student enrollment decline or have had other factors contribute to a significant loss of funding.
What Reykdal’s office is watching out for, he said, is for districts to cut basic education requirements such as special education services or to cut days off of the school year. If a district does cut basic education requirements, the state may intervene, according to Reykdal.