School board approves levy ballot measure

The property tax levy would provide $1.95 million a year to the Vashon Island School District.

In February, Vashon voters will decide on a property tax levy that would provide $1.95 million a year to Vashon Island School District to address safety, security, capital improvements and technology needs from 2025 through 2028.

The district’s CapTech levy, as it is generally called, isn’t new. Vashon voters have regularly approved four-year CapTech levies since 2001.

These levies, according to the district, now fund approximately 6.2% of the district’s annual budget — filling the gap between what the state provides and the actual cost of preserving the district’s assets and staying current with rapidly changing technologies.

The current CapTech levy, approved by a 73% margin in 2020, authorized the district to collect tax revenue of about $1.5 annually from 2021 through 2024.

The 2025-2028 levy would be a 30 percent increase.

The CapTech levy passed in 2020 was also a sizeable increase from the district’s previous levy that passed in 2016. That levy generated about $950,000 annually from 2017 through 2020 — about half of the tax revenue the 2025-2028 levy calls for.

On Nov. 14, school board members voted unanimously to place the new levy on the February ballot.

The existing levy accounts for only a small part of islanders’ total property tax bills — about 3 percent — and the new one, if approved, won’t change that.

In deciding the amount of the levy ask, the school board and administration, over the course of several months, considered several different scenarios that calculated inflationary costs for supplies and materials, as well as anticipated annual increases of 7% in staffing costs over four years. They concluded that keeping the levy at $1.5 million a year would result in serious budget shortfalls by 2028.

The current levy will cost the owner of a $700,000 home about $238 next year, according to the district’s levy fact sheet. If the proposed levy is approved, that would increase to $308 in 2025, the district estimates.

What will the levy pay for?

According to a fact sheet from the district, the levy will pay for enhanced security measures aimed at student and staff safety, including upgrades of entry and exit controls and door locks on school buildings, interior and exterior security cameras, and other security systems including internet filters and monitors.

It will also fund expenses including a program providing work opportunities for district students; the district’s maintenance and supply of Chromebooks distributed to all students; computers, docking stations, printers and supplies used by school staff; and a wide array of other software and infrastructure including firewall services, off-site data storage and contracted IT expenses.

Capital improvements to be funded by the levy include improvements to McMurray Middle School’s restrooms, and upgrading heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems and equipment (HVAC) in all district schools — an important consideration for schools in the post-COVID era.

Levy dollars will also be earmarked to pay the staffing costs of 3.6 full-time technology staff members — which by 2028 will amount to almost $654,000 per year, according to a district document.

Significantly, the levy will additionally pay for the replacement of Chautauqua Elementary School’s fire alarm control panel, which monitors sensors throughout the building. The current system is out of date and replacement parts are difficult to come by; in the event of a system failure or malfunction, VISD would be required to institute a 24/7 “fire watch” until fixed, according to superintendent Slade McSheehy.

A new fire alarm control panel will cost the district $450,000.

Another need deemed urgent by the district is the replacement of the elementary school’s large and deteriorating play structure, at a cost of $500,000.

“Given the age of the [school’s] playground, elements continue to fail, are unsafe and must be cordoned off to students and the public,” according to the levy fact sheet. “Parts are no longer available which has led to extended periods of time where elements of the playground are not available to kids.”

Last year, the replacement of the fire alarm control panel and the playground were both originally identified as urgent needs by the district when the school board considered putting a $19.5 capital improvement bond before voters to decide in 2023.

But after months of planning, the district scrapped plans for the bond in November 2022. The decision coincided with the resignation of the district’s then-director of business and finance, Kay Adams, leaving a leadership gap in the district’s business office.

“We are facing a range of uncertainties related to the general economy, state education funding, interest rates, and inflation,” said school board president Toby Holmes, in a November 2022 email to district families, explaining the decision. “By suspending the bond request, we can more carefully reduce risks until we are in a stronger position to confidently manage such a large undertaking.”

However, Holmes went on to say that the school board had identified potential remaining funds from the 2017 Capital Projects Bond, as well as capacity from the district’s current capital tech levy, to address Chautauqua’s fire alarm system.

In a phone call on Monday, McSheehy said priorities had shifted since the time of that announcement, and that in working with the district’s new director of business and finance, Kim Mayer, hired in January, he had determined not to allocate funds for the replacement of the fire alarm control panel in 2023.

“I didn’t feel comfortable setting aside $500,000 for a project when I was more concerned about maintaining our [general] fund balances,” he said. “I took a more conservative stance.”

While acknowledging that replacing the fire alarm control panel was an urgent safety need, he said he believed that the district could continue to repair its existing panel, as needed, until funds from the 2025 levy were received.

“We’re limping along,” McSheehy said. “It’s unfortunate that the state does not fund capital improvements.”

What happens if the levy doesn’t pass?

According to the district’s fact sheet, the consequences of the levy’s failure would be dire.

“Emergency replacement of the Chautauqua fire panel and playground, HVAC upgrades and maintenance, and approximately $1 million of staffing costs that are not paid by the state would have to be absorbed by the general fund,” the fact sheet says. “The necessary additional expenditures would result in dramatic staffing reductions across all employee groups as well as severely degrade current technology services provided to students, families and staff.”

Find out more about what the levy will fund, and view the district’s fact sheet here.