In just under one month, a special election will be held for islanders to vote on whether to renew a levy to pay for technology upgrades and facilities maintenance needed for the Vashon Island School District.
If approved by voters on Feb. 11, the capital and technology (“Cap and Tech”) levy would bring in $6 million to the district. The funds from it would pay for projects ranging from brick resealing at McMurray Middle School to “next-generation” classroom projection, according to information provided by the district.
In an interview with The Beachcomber, VISD Superintendent Slade McSheehy — who is also with the Yes for Kids campaign committee —talked about the importance of funding the levy. He likened the need for it to home improvements or getting a new phone.
“Just like our houses, if we don’t maintain them, you will soon start to feel the consequences if you’re not painting your house,” he said. “In technology, it’s probably clear (to people) because everyone has a phone that they have to figure out whether they want a new one or not in four or five years — ‘Am I going to get the new one?’”
Rheagan Sparks, the chairwoman of the school district board, said if voters did not renew the levy on Feb. 11, it would lead to a “crisis.”
“I couldn’t tell you what would happen,” she said. “We wouldn’t have the funding. These things would not happen and we would probably have to work on presenting another levy in the future.”
The King County Elections website showed the levy had one statement in favor, written by members of the Vashon Schools Foundation, but no statement opposing the measure.
The proposed levy
Islanders have voted for the Cap and Tech Levy every four years since 2001. It is funded through a portion of residents’ property taxes.
The levy covers 6.2% of the VISD’s budget in order to make up for the fact that the state “falls short of fully financing” programs and services, according to information provided by the district.
The 2016-20 levy generated $3.8 million for the district, school board members wrote in a commentary to The Beachcomber [at the time.] The renewed levy, if passed, would be good for 2020-24 and generate some $6 million for the district. That figure was created by the directors of technology and business operations, who completed a needs assessment of the district. The rate was also determined in consultation with McSheehy and the school board.
“We do take into consideration some of the contexts on the island in terms of how we see other levies, other election cycles go, but primarily, it’s based on the identified needs. It’s not an arbitrary number.” McSheehy told The Beachcomber about how district officials determine the total revenue the levy would generate over four years.
If passed in 2020, the levy rate for the first year would be 43 cents, up 13 cents from the previous year, according to information provided by the district. After that, however, islanders would only be paying 41 cents each in 2021; thirty-nine cents each in 2022 and 38 cents each in 2023.
Tech and Cap needs
McSheehy and Sparks both agreed one capital project that could use attention with the renewed levy funds is surge protection at the high school. Grant funding to the district to fix this issue was denied, so funds from the levy will have to go toward that issue.
“The island is subject to many power events and over time, those kinds of repeated outages stress the systemic fry components of it,” Sparks said. “As the amount of infrastructure grows in the district and the complexity of it grows, that (surge protection) just becomes an even more important issue.”
McSheehy said painting needs to be done at the high school, even though it is a fairly new facility.
“The paint that was put on it, we’re finding out, was not as durable as we would have liked,” he said.
Other capital projects include resealing bricks at McMurray; installing new carpeting at Chautauqua Elementary School; and renovating the bus barn, which McSheehy called “one of the biggest eyesores in our district.”
“If the public supports this levy, I’m looking forward to moving on that,” he said.
On the technology front, improvements that the renewed levy could fund run the gauntlet from new Google Chromebooks to overhead projectors. McSheehy told The Beachcomber technology is essential to district function and if there’s any indication of how important it is to the district, just consider the number of technology tickets put in by teachers; it’s by the hundreds, he said.
“If teachers can’t get their computer or projection to work in the morning, they’re dead in the water,” McSheehy said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever given a presentation where your tech goes out, but it’s debilitating so that rarely happens — that’s like a dodo bird in our district. But in order to do that, it takes resources, so the tech levy is critical for that.”
Sparks highlighted projectors as an important issue that a renewed levy could help pay for.
“We’d like to do some next-generation classroom projection and have actual projectors rather than show many of the old overhead projection screens in the classroom,” she said.
One parent’s call for action
Amy Broomhall, head of Yes for Kids, the campaign spearheading the get-out-the-vote effort for the levy, has three kids in each of the island’s district schools.
“It is my personal belief that a strong democracy relies on having a strong public school system,” Broomhall said. “In order to have that, we need to fund our schools properly, which, unfortunately, the state does not do. That way, as a community and a nation, we can properly educate all of our children.”
She said she would like her taxes to go to supporting things like education over anything else in the community.
“I think it’s a really high priority,” Broomhall said.
She talked about how capital projects and technology are essential to the functioning of the district.
“I think a healthy district needs healthy facilities and we need to be thinking about the future, too,” Broomhall said. “Obviously, technology is changing rapidly and we need to keep pace with that in order to educate children that are ready to go out into the world and contribute and thrive.”
Broomhall said not passing the levy would have devastating consequences for the district.
“It affects everything because when you don’t have enough money to run your schools and maintain and improve upon what you’re offering to students, then that money has to be taken from somewhere else in the budget,” she said. “I’m just projecting here, but I think it would mean less teachers, less offerings, less courses — less of everything.”
McSheehy is not worried about any opponents of the levy. During a Beachcomber interview, he had a message for them:
“I think the community expects our schools to be one of the diamonds on our island,” McSheehy said, noting that the district is the island’s largest employer. “A healthy school district is a healthy community. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”