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– Editor's note: This story has been correct to accurately reflect current levy rates in Toutle Lake School District and Woodland School District. 

All six school districts in Cowlitz County will have replacement levies on the Feb. 11 ballot, and they have something in common: These levies are not extras. They are essential to basic education and operations, especially because they come after a state clampdown on local school taxes, officials say.

Longview Superintendent Dan Zorn said 125 of the district’s 900 employees are funded by the district’s levy, known formally as a educational programs and operations levy.

“A significant portion of our staff are levy-funded,” Zorn said. “To think about operating our system without 125 people is frankly frightening.”

The Feb. 11 ballots measures are slated to replace current levies that expire at the end of 2020.

Property owners in Kelso, Longview, Kalama, Toutle Lake, Woodland and Castle Rock will be face some increases if the levies pass. In Longview and Kelso, for example, the levy tax on a $200,000 home would rise in 2021 from $300 currently to $444 and $414, respectively.

The expiring levies were all affected by the Legislature's capping of levy rates at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value as part of its “fix” to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision on basic education funding.

Early last year, however, the Legislature raised the cap to $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. Only Toutle Lake is asking voters for a levy at that high a rate.

The original levy cap, coupled with some sharp negotiated pay hikes for teachers and other staff, led to budget cuts in the Kelso and Longview districts in the last school year. This is one reason that area superintendents stress that levies are essential, not optional.

Levies finance programs and staff positions at the schools. Unlike bonds, which raise funds for buildings and other infrastructure, levies are more about learning, programs and people, Kelso Superintendent Mary Beth Tack said.

She called the Feb. 11 levy election day a “vital day for public education.” Ballots for the February election will go out on Jan. 24.

“The bottom line is about the quality of education. ... We want a high-quality education for our kids,” Tack said. “We want them to have the best education and be competitive when they leave the system.”

The levies also help pay for mandates that the state government does not fully fund, Woodland Superintendent Michael Green said.

“There are requirements from the government that we serve all students — including (special education) students — with a full program, and those aren’t funded,” Green said. “Without these levies we could not continue to offer the level of programming we do.”

Districts use levies to fund staff positions such as custodians, nurses, teachers, teaching aides, counselors, coaches and security guards. They also pay for sports, art, music, band and drama, as well as early education, technology, curriculum materials, and intervention programs for at-risk students.

“We’re not talking about fluff,” said Longview’s Zorn. “Its essential staff members and positions our kids need, needs we have to be able to provide for. Its essential services that are funded though the levy.”

For example, Green said during the recent measles outbreak, Woodland’s four school nurses shouldered a heavy load. Based on student enrollment, the state only provides enough funding for less than one nurse, a level Green called insufficient.

The levy fills in the remainder of the funding for the two full-time and two half-time nurses, Green said. That allows the district to take care of student health needs, including diabetes and allergies.

And Toutle Lake Superintendent Bob Garrett said that while sports may seem like an “extra,” the importance of athletics in rural districts can’t be overlooked.

“In rural districts the sports aspect is significant and important,” Garrett said. “Athletic events are a hub for the community.”

Kalama Superintendent Eric Nerison said his district’s levy pays for many things the community expects in a school system, and that if the levy failed to pass those programs would be “directly in the crosshairs.”

“That (state funding) hole might look different in Kalama, Castle Rock and Kelso, but there’s a hole that’s not being filled” by state funding, Nerison said. “And the levy fills that.”

All the districts will mail levy information to voters in the coming weeks. Districts are allowed to send to informational brochures, but it’s illegal for them to spend public money on political campaigning. A district cannot, for example, tell voters to “vote yes” on a levy, but it can share the role levy funding plays in schools.

Especially important, added Kalama School District spokesman Nick Shanmac, is getting facts to people who aren’t connected with the schools already and don’t know about the school system.

“Maybe you don’t have a student at the school,” Shanmac said. “But when your school is successful your neighborhood will succeed, too.”

Several superintendents said that the levy allows smaller Cowlitz districts to remain competitive with those in Clark County and across the state. Woodland’s Green said Cowlitz County school districts, on average, get between 6% to 12% less state funding than Clark County due to pay incentives to work in high cost-of-living areas such as Vancouver.

“On their way to work, our teachers are driving through districts that get 6% more funding,” Green said. “We have to remain competitive.”

However, district officials said they balanced district needs with taxpayer expectations when coming up with the proposed collection rates.

Kelso’s Chief Financial Officer Scott Westlund said the district remained “mindful of the burden we’re asking the community to bear” while developing its levy request. The district is seeking a levy of $2.07 per $1,000, Westlund said, eschewing a $2.50 levy because it would be unreasonable for Kelso, where 27% of the population is in poverty.

And in Longview, overall school tax rates will still be less than in 2013, even with the proposed increase in the educational programs and operations levy, according to Zorn.

Castle Rock Superintendent Ryan Greene said that while “nobody wants to pay more taxes,” the state funding model is inadequate, making levies a necessity.

“With 1,400 kids ... the levy is huge,” Greene said. “It’s a lot of local dollars that pays for these pieces.”

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