After the Centralia School District was unable to pass a Feb. 14 special election for levy renewal, Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston and Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope, who represents Centralia, made a plea to local leaders on Friday morning to rally positive conversations and support around Centralia education.
“When your levy fails, your community is at risk of failing. And this is our third levy failure out of four,” Smith Johnston said.
Her comments came during a Lewis County Mayors Meeting. The monthly gatherings include municipal leaders, county officials and staff from state and federal representatives’ offices. In a roundtable setting, the event offers each a chance for “resource sharing,” where they make offers and requests for interlocal help.
Smith Johnston added the district’s intent to run the levy in April. That will be its last chance to pass it in 2023.
“I am not immune to the fact that we have issues and that our school district needs to improve,” she said. “If we all, as leaders, make that a public conversation or even a private conversation, of all the failures of the school district versus the possibility and the hard work and investment people are making in improving it, it will not help us pass it.”
Swope, too, relayed the district’s levy has impacts throughout the community, not just in the schools. Students today, he said, are facing unique challenges beyond what many adults imagine, listing suicide and other problems with mental health, drug use and overdoses.
“We’ve got to do whatever we can to wrap our arms around our students and make sure they have the very best outcome,” Swope said.
During roundtable sharing, when it was time for Winlock Mayor Brandon Svenson to share, he alluded to budget struggles at the Winlock School District, which recently drew criticism from residents when its school board entertained the idea of firing counselors. Svenson echoed that students in Winlock are having similar issues of mental illness and food insecurity.
He blamed the closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic for mental health struggles, but then spent the next seven minutes saying schools weren’t earning community trust because of not providing nutritious food or sound curriculum. He largely blamed the state and “superintendents that have mastered going to college but maybe haven’t mastered being in the real world” for “what’s being pushed” and claimed schools spend too much time on “social issues.”
“I wouldn’t send my kids to Centralia schools,” Svenson said.
He showed no intention of stopping this speech until Swope cut in and said, “Mayor Svenson, we gotta stop.”
Swope later circled back to the topic and insisted Centralia students deserved support beyond the classroom, saying passing a levy was a piece of that. He praised Superintendent Dr. Lisa Grant for her leadership and shared admiration for Centralia teachers and coaches, mentioning how much his daughter has benefitted from a supportive basketball coach, who coaches both the varsity high school team and third graders.
“There are a lot of great positive things that are happening. And while I may not agree with some of the education that goes out, this goes way beyond the classroom,” Swope said to Svenson. “This is giving students an avenue and an opportunity. … What happened during COVID is tragic. There's no question. Absolutely tragic. But moving forward, we have an opportunity as leaders to really push things in a direction where we want to see improvement and change for our students.”
Svenson responded that he does hope the levy passes, but doubled down on his opinions of current education and a desire that local educators won’t be “hiding behind the state.”
Later, Mossyrock Mayor Randall Sasser said he agreed, as a citizen, he had concerns about schools, but felt it was high property taxes that discouraged people from voting for levies.
“But, I have to put the trust in our school board," Sasser said. “If I don’t feel like they’re doing the right things, then, go to the school board meetings and voice your opinion.”