3 Issaquah school levy proposals headed to voters
January 9, 2014
New: Jan. 9, 12:13 p.m.
Voters will have the chance to approve or deny three levy proposals the Issaquah School District is placing on the Feb. 11 ballot.
The district is seeking the renewal of its existing maintenance and operations levy, which provides a large chunk of employee salaries not covered by the state.
The district is also asking for a one-year, $1.7 million transportation levy, and a four-year, $52 million capital levy aimed at improving technology and key repairs to facilities.
If all three levies are approved, the total tax rate for a district property owner would rise eight cents to $4.83 per $1,000 from 2015-18. That equates to a $40 annual increase on a $500,000 home.
The levy amounts were approved by the Issaquah School Board following an extensive review process by a committee of district parents, teachers and administrators.
Superintendent Ron Thiele said he believes the increase of 1.7 percent over existing tax rates is a good solution, although people have questioned the need for any increase. The district also kept levy items to the most practical needs, he said.
“We’re very committed to stable tax rates, so there’s kind of a competition there,” Thiele said. “You could try to go for the highest, most spectacular kinds of things. But it would definitely raise your taxes more than I was comfortable with.”
While the total tax level will remain the same, the amount of each individual levy will vary from year to year – as some go up, others go down by a corresponding amount.
The M&O levy, the largest of the three, will be between $2.35 and $2.52 per $1,000 assessed value between 2015 and 2018. Officials say it will raise between $44 million and $54 million per year, or roughly 21 percent of the district’s classroom costs.
“There’s a lot of money in there for salaries,” Thiele said. “We get our state apportionment, but state apportionment doesn’t cover the total cost of our salaries.”
While the transportation levy represents the smallest financial chunk on February’s ballot, it’s also a critical piece, district officials said.
The $1.7 million measure would pay for 71 new buses, to replace outdated vehicles and help the district plan for future enrollment growth.
Kuper said the new buses are more fuel-efficient, saving between 1 and 3 miles per gallon. If the district can upgrade its entire bus fleet by 1 mile per gallon, it would mean an annual savings of about $100,000 in diesel fuel costs.
“Transportation is another expense that is not fully funded by state dollars,” Kuper said. “School bus levies allow the district to collect state funding to offset the cost of bus purchases.”
The capital levy targets a wide variety of items, including replacing aging computers, printers, Internet servers and document cameras. The levy also pays for staff training and new classes related to technology, as well as software upgrades for bus operations.
Thiele said training costs are a key piece of the puzzle that often get overlooked. Teachers are required to maintain an “online presence” with a classroom website that has course requirements and assignments available to families.
Teachers typically have to be trained outside of their regular schedule, Thiele noted.
“It’s no different than a Boeing engineer who has to learn a new piece of software,” he said. “And I can’t expect them to be trained for free.”
The district uses a levy, rather than a bond, to fund technology because it is a basic part of daily operations, Kuper said.
Some of Issaquah’s schools are in the process of being reconfigured for enhanced safety. Administrative spaces have moved to the front of buildings, where employees can more easily monitor foot traffic, and electronic cards are replacing keys at entry points.
The levy would pay for similar modifications at other schools, along with maintaining heating and cooling systems, and installing more portable classrooms.
Thiele said administrators are constantly looking at ways to create safer buildings, but that usually goes into much finer detail than dealing with weapons or an earthquake.
“You’re thinking about safety and security in all kinds of ways, not just the big, high-profile ways,” he said.
Bond vs. Levy
Jake Kuper, chief of finance and operations for the Issaquah School District, said it’s common for people to confuse bonds from levies.
“The easiest way to remember the difference is bonds are for buildings and levies are for learning,” he said.
Because the state doesn’t fund regular maintenance costs for existing schools, or construction costs for new schools, districts like Issaquah rely on voters to approve bonds. Similar to a mortgage, Kuper said, bonds are paid over a long-term period, typically 20 years. State law requires bond dollars to be spent on capital projects like new construction or major maintenance, not classroom operations.
Levy dollars “help districts close the gap between what the state pays for education and the actual cost,” Kuper said. Issaquah’s current maintenance and operation levy pays for 21 percent of classroom costs.
Capital levies pay for technology – including hardware, software and infrastructure – and repairs to items like heating and cooling systems, roofs and security systems.
Like classroom costs, the state doesn’t fully fund transportation needs, and a levy like Issaquah’s one-year, $1.7 million proposal helps districts offset the costs of new bus purchases, Kuper said.
How do schools spend the money?
Issaquah has received clean audits from the state auditor’s office in each of the past 11 years. Moody’s, which tracks governmental bonds, has given Issaquah its highest bond credit rating, AAA.
Districts often refinance bonds to save money, and that savings generally translates to lower taxes, Kuper said.
Refinancing doesn’t drive a district’s credit rating, he added. Rather, a good bond rating allows a district to refinance at a lower interest rate, just as a homeowner’s credit score affects their ability to refinance.
The last time Issaquah schools put a measure before voters was April 2012. A $219 million bond measure passed with 70 percent approval.