Camas, WA — Lacamas Magazine asked several questions to Dr. Jeff Snell, Superintendent of Camas School District (CSD), and Doreen McKercher, the CSD Communications Director, about the upcoming levies, as well as some other topics.
Local residents have received special February election ballots for two levies as the current Educational Programs & Operations (EP&O) levy and the Technology capital levy will both expire in 2021. CSD is asking voters to consider approval of two replacement levies (an EP&O and Technology, Health, and Safety capital levy) that will allow CSD to continue the same level of service students, teachers and families have enjoyed for decades.
Questions: What are these replacement levies for? And how often does this come to a vote? Does it require 60% voter approval?
Answer: EP&O funds and accomplishes several things: 1) Extracurricular activity funding; 2) Programming that CSD enriches beyond the state, such as our nursing programming; CSD provides nine nursing staff, which is more than the state-funded 1.2 nurses; also smaller class sizes; 3) Gaps, such as special services that the state requires school districts to deliver, but does not fund (also referred to as unfunded mandates); and 4) Transportation and food services. The state doesn’t give the district enough money to meet those state requirements, so we enrich with a levy. Over time we’ve created a transportation model the public likes. The state has a 1 mile walking distance from schools, and we improve upon that.
There are three ways that we raise funds, and one of them is the bond, which requires 60 percent voter approval. The other two require 50 percent plus one, which are the EP&O and Technology and Capital levy. These three always combine to form our local tax rate. The last bond was approved in 2016, which helps to build new schools.
Question: What percentage of the Camas annual budget comes from levy funds?
Answer: The Camas community has supported schools through local levies for more than 40 years. Initially, levies provided money for things that cannot be funded by state, or basic education, dollars like extra-curricular activities. Over time, state funding did not keep pace with actual costs, and lawmakers pushed the burden on local communities to fill the gap with levy dollars.
Our levies make up to about 20% of our budget. If we were to align our budget to State and Federal funding, we would not be able to continue extra-curricular activities. Classroom sizes, breakfast and lunch prices, and the length of time students spend on the bus would all increase. Additionally, many employees would lose their jobs. The amount of money we would have to maintain or replace computers, roofs, and HVAC systems would be almost non-existent.
Most of our parents cite Camas Schools as the reason they moved to Camas. It is our community support that makes our schools strong and vibrant.
Extracurricular activities are: all sports programs, all club activities, academic teams, to pay for coaching assignments, and pay for the costs of running the activities, which includes concerts and activities outside the school day. These activities have really become a part of our culture, it’s who we are.
Question: What do you say to taxpayers that say this is appalling that you’re asking for more money when you can’t even get your teachers into the classroom to instruct? To them, it’s about value for their hard-earned dollar.
Answer: We’re not asking for more money, we are asking for less than last time. It’s about 80 cents less than our 2020 local school tax rate. In 2020, Camas residents all paid $5.56/$1,000 of our assessed valuation (AV), and in 2021, it is projected to be $4.77. If voters approve both levies, tax rates are projected to stay the same: $4.77/$1,000 AV. We are asking for sustained commitment to the district. We realize in the past 40 years of this continued support there has not been a pandemic. Each family situation is very unique. I don’t pretend to say “we’ve delivered for you.” It’s hard to deliver under these circumstances. This is for 2022, 2023 and 2024 — going into the future. The programming people want is dependent on this revenue. I tell residents to be mad at me, don’t be mad at the teachers or other staff. People are doing the best they can to navigate this pandemic.
This community has built amazing things! The tax rate on this levy is lower than ballot measures past, but we know this pandemic is tough on everybody.
If this fails, we can do it in April, but we have to set the 2022 budget in May, and it puts people in a lot of worry about jobs. We would run it again.
We also want taxpayers to know we don’t do any of the levy campaigning. All these signs, websites are all private donations. On the flip side, the Vote NO is private money, as well. We just provide information and we are required to pay for the ballots, which costs $75,000. That’s the cost of running an election in February 2021.
We’ve been doing really well with our limited in-classroom sessions this year with only one COVID transmission. We are excited to welcome more students back to on campus learning in the coming weeks.
Question: What do you say to critics who say you’re misleading taxpayers because you went from $2.15 to $2.50 per $1,000? It’s said this is an increase over the existing levy.
Answer: We’ve been transparent throughout the process. We used those three tools (bond, EP&O levy, and capital levy) to get to the overall local school tax rate. We looked at the bond, and it dropped, which gave us more capacity to ask. I look at the overall tax rate for schools. We’ve always communicated our overall tax rate, because that is what the taxpayer will feel for their bill. Again, the board dropped the rate from 2020 and is staying consistent in the collection years, 2022-2024, of these measures.
Question: What is the short and long-term fallout if the levy fails?
Answer: Well 20% of a budget is the equivalent of one out of every five days being cut. Obviously, we just can’t cut one day per week, so it would result in loss of extracurricular activities, programming, and additional staff support. It would make Camas look dramatically different as these activities outside the school day would no longer have a funding source. It could be up to a 10-15 percent staff reduction.
Question: Is the school district saving money during the lockdown?
Answer: Yes, and we are also losing revenue due to decreased enrollment. As of January 2021, enrollment is down 6.4 percent, which is 464 students. Factoring in the expected revenue losses and forecasting expenditures, our district is on-trend to end the year with a $2-3 million deficit. Several factors over the remaining months of the year could increase or decrease the anticipated deficit of $2-3 million.
With our levy in place we can get through that. We could get additional help from state and federal relief funding, but we don’t get too much from the federal government.
Question: What do you say to people who can’t afford more taxes?
Answer: I understand and appreciate that any tax is difficult even if it is a renewal like this. The good news is that when taxpayers get their tax statement this year, they will see a drop in local school tax rates. In 2020, Camas residents all paid $5.56/$1,000 of our assessed valuation (AV), and in 2021, it is projected to be $4.77. If voters approve both levies, tax rates are projected to stay the same: $4.77/$1,000 AV.
Regarding how much money we get, per-pupil spending is a more accurate indicator since districts with higher poverty qualify for more funding in general.
Per Pupil Spending (Source: OSPI):
- Washougal: $14,285
- Evergreen: $13,849
- Vancouver: $13,747
- Battle Ground: $13,236
- Camas: $12,842
The school board has presented a local school tax package that allows us to continue existing programming, support technology needs and manage resource maintenance, all for less than was collected in 2020. It’s a combination of these two renewal levies and our existing bond payments that gives the combined local school tax rate.
Question: Former President Trump, President Biden and the CDC have been saying for several months, and now they’ve done it officially, that schools should re-open. Why isn’t Camas following CDC guidelines on this issue?
Answer: We are. The Department of Health has taken that guidance and spelled out recommendations for high and moderate COVID levels, which is why we keep rolling out grade levels. We have established a timeline to get all grades back in the classroom in small groups by March 1 even in the high COVID level. If we’re able to move to a consistent moderated COVID level we can accelerate that timeline.
The capacity for small groups is 15 students or less and it’s not a full day like from 8 am – 1:30 pm. Small groups are really an intermediate step before moving to hybrid and aligns to the Department of Health guidance.
There are a lot of different perspectives about the timeline for returning to in-person learning. This is the same for staff. We have had some staff serving students in-person since July and others have only been serving students remotely. We have families in very different situations as well with some not able to have their students served in person and others feeling like we should be opening up. The board has been very consistent with public health guidance. We’ve been diligent with face coverings and distancing. It’s tough. We have to keep moving in a safe, thoughtful way.
Question: How do we manage teachers who don’t want to be in the classroom?
Answer: We have been trying to provide choices for staff. So as we’ve added grade levels back in small groups some staff continue to serve students who need remote learning. At some point there will be a discrepancy and staff who aren’t able to work on campus will be needed. In that situation we work with them through the leave process.
Question: Is Dr. Snell seeking the Vancouver Superintendent job?
Answer: I am not seeking it, but I have been asked about it. I worked there for 15 years and know they are looking for a new superintendent. Right now I’m just concentrated on managing the pandemic and trying to support the board and staff to provide students with the best possible rest of this school year.