By Pat Jenkins
In a perfect world – one in which the state fully funded public education – school districts like Bethel wouldn’t need local levies.
But the reality is that Bethel’s School Programs and Operations Levy will, if it passes in voting that ends Feb. 11, help pay for about 25 percent of the district’s day-to-day costs. Those costs, which aren’t funded by the state, include teachers, curriculum and classroom support, bus transportation for students, extracurricular activities (sports and arts), campus security, school librarians, nurses and counselors, building maintenance and groundskeeping, and all-day kindergarten and other instructional programs.
The four-year proposal would replace the previous P&O levy by collecting between $40 million and $45 million per year from 2015 to 2018.
For relieved school districts, “it’s like being in a casino and hitting a jackpot” when levies pass, said Bethel superintendent Tom Siegel. “It’s kind of a crazy system (for funding schools), but that’s how it works.”
Bethel hopes to hit the jackpot twice in this special election. Also on the ballot is a School Technology Levy that calls for $4.5 million a year for four years beginning in. Supporters say it would enable the district to assign a laptop or some version of tablet computer to each student as a way to enhance their instruction and increase their opportunity to acquire knowledge in the use of technology that is a key to preparing them for higher education and jobs.
The much larger of the two measures is the School Programs and Operations Levy. If it passes, the district would qualify for as much as $8 million a year in “levy equalization” funds from the state that help districts such as Bethel that have comparatively low assessed property valuations from which to draw tax support.
All-day kindergarten is an example of programs that would benefit from the levy’s passage. The School Board has earmarked part of the levy proceeds for expanding all-day grade K to all elementary schools beginning with the start of the 2014-15 school year this September.
Another example is Spanish Immersion, which would be launched initially on a pilot basis in an elementary school. Its goal is to help students learn Spanish early, with an eye on their futures in workplaces that district officials note are increasingly interested in multilingual employees.
On the technology levy side, district officials and supporters say it would give teachers and students new ways to integrate laptops, tablets and handheld devices in their teaching and learning. It’s already being tried at three schools – Spanaway Lake High School, Spanaway Middle School and Spanaway Elementary School – as a way to engage students in their classwork. Eventually, all students districtwide at every grade level, starting in kindergarten, would have technology access.
District officials note that technology levy funds would only be used for buying and supporting technology equipment. That would include the hiring of an estimated 10 new employees, half of them teachers, for additional workloads that would come with the expanded presence of technology districtwide.
Ballots for the election were mailed to voters Jan. 24 by the Pierce County elections department. Feb. 11 will be the final day that voters can turn their ballots in at official dropboxes or by mail.