Community members’ opinions differ over Battle Ground Public Schools’ levy

BATTLE GROUND — As the Feb. 14 special election approaches, residents who live within the Battle Ground School District have an important decision to make — whether or not they will vote to approve the district’s four-year, $136.4 million replacement maintenance and operations levy.

Early voters in Clark County have already started turning in their ballots. According to the Clark County Elections website, 107 ballots were received on Jan. 27, the first day ballots were received. On Jan. 30, 553 were received; 7,186 on Jan. 31; 6,523 on Feb. 1; and 6,272 on Feb. 2. Registered voters have until the end of the day Feb. 14 to turn in their ballot, or it must be postmarked on that day.

A total of seven school districts in the Clark County area have either a levy or bond on the Feb. 14 ballot, and the Battle Ground School District levy has garnered quite a bit of attention over the last several months. The district also recently ran an $80-million bond during the November general election that voters did not pass.

The Battle Ground School District is asking its voters to approve a four-year replacement maintenance and operations levy in the amount of $136.4 million. Among helping to fund additional district staff, curriculum and more, levy funds also go to fund technology in the district. Photo by Mike Schultz
The Battle Ground School District is asking its voters to approve a four-year replacement maintenance and operations levy in the amount of $136.4 million. Among helping to fund additional district staff, curriculum and more, levy funds also go to fund technology in the district. Photo by Mike Schultz

Over the last few weeks, Battle Ground School District officials held two levy information nights at area schools — one at Laurin Middle School on Jan. 24 and one at Yacolt Primary School on Jan. 31.

The Jan. 31 levy information night in Yacolt was well attended by numerous parents, teachers, principals and other community members who listened to a brief presentation by Superintendent Mark Hottowe. Hottowe discussed some of the increasing costs from the state that the district will face over the next several years, and also talked about the Battle Ground School District is putting the largest percentage of levy dollars into people (staff, teachers, nurses, etc.) of any district in the area.

“I’ve been in six or seven other schools districts, and since I’ve been here (in the Battle Ground School District), we haven’t added a great deal of staff,” Hottowe told the crowd at Yacolt Primary. “I think the people in the district long before me thought that if they wanted to have an impact on learning, they needed to also make sure to work on the social/emotional learning, so they wanted to make sure the district had those nurses, psychologists, etc.”

During his presentation, Hottowe was asked by an attendee what would happen if the levy did not pass. Hottowe pointed to a chart that showed all of the staff that the district currently has that the state does not fund (which was depicted in blue in a bar graph), and said that if the levy fails “all the stuff in blue goes away.” He said this would equate to about 400 people who could potentially be laid off.

“If the levy fails, Linda Allen, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, will start the RIF (Reductions in Force) process,” Hottowe said. “The board could also decide to run the levy again in April, the district is allowed to run a levy two times in one calendar year.”

Citizens have different opinions about approving the levy

Some citizens who live within the Battle Ground School District do not support the levy at the current amount the district is requesting. Dick Rylander is one of those citizens.

“I support a reasonable levy,” Rylander said. “But I can’t support this levy.”

Rylander pointed out that the total four-year levy amount that the district is asking for — $136.4 million — is a $33 million, or 32 percent increase, over the district’s last four-year levy. During the four years of the proposed replacement levy, the district would collect $31.68 million in 2018; $33.26 million in 2019; $34.93 million in 2020; and $36.67 million in 2021. Rylander said this is a 16 percent increase from 2017 to 2018, and then a 5 percent increase each of the next three years.

“Inflation has averaged 1.1 percent per year for the last four years, but the school board wants a 16 percent increase from 2017 to 2018, and then a 5 percent increase each year thereafter,” Rylander said. “Average wage increases in the Clark County area are only about 2.3 percent. This means that the school board is asking for five to seven times more money per year than other people are taking home. What about those on fixed income who are little or nothing? What do people give up to pay this increased tax?”

Rylander said he has also questioned the school board and district officials about the need for the additional 267 people that the levy funds that the state does not fund.

“I asked the school board and the superintendent if they have any evidence that these extra people have shown a measurable outcome in the schools, better test scores, etc., but there is no evidence,” Rylander said. “To keep the extra 267 people, you need to stay ahead of inflation. That means that the last four-year levy was $103.3 million. If you used a 1.5 percent increase moving forward that means the levy should have really been $109.63 million, not $136.4 million. If the school board had asked for what surrounding districts are asking (3 percent) then instead of $103.3 million they would have asked for $116.26 million ($20 million less than what’s on the ballot).”

Another issue that Rylander said he has with the increase is that, during his research, he found that 61 percent of households in the Battle Ground School District have no children. He also said he looked up the last five years of growth for the district on the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) website, and found that the net total increase of students was 135 for the district.

“I have grandkids in the district,” Rylander said. “I love education, I’ve done a lot of training in education, I believe a well-educated populous is a successful populous. I want kids to be prepared to go into the world. I love local levies, I am pro levy, but I’m not OK with this size of increase with no information and no process. I want people to vote no and force the school district to come back in April and ask for something closer to a 3 percent increase. I would be the first one to turn in my ballot voting yes.”

“I think the school board has tried really hard to move past the Shonny Bria days,” Rylander continued, referring to the district’s former superintendent. “The FIT team who worked on the bond was great, I really think the school board has tried to make some improvements, but I think there’s still room for some evolution. I feel that the way they went about this levy process was less than honest, and it’s not going to help them. The last levy before this one was a 20 percent increase over the one before that, that’s more than a 50 percent increase in eight years.”

Walt Elliott is another community member who is opposed to the levy.

“My primary issue is that we simply cannot trust the board,” said Elliot. “Also, the pamphlet is so vague as to where the money will go that it is virtually worthless as far as ‘facts’ go. I also think the district is top heavy at the upper management level. Some of them don’t even live in the Battle Ground district, so their levy monies go to other school districts.”

Other residents support Battle Ground levy

Within the Battle Ground School District area, there are those who agree with some of those same thoughts that Rylander has, but there are also numerous community members who fully support voting to approve the levy.

“The schools need this money and it’s almost impossible to pass anything for our children,” said community member Jesse Murray. “We don’t even have middle school sports to keep kids out of trouble. We have a high rate of suicides per capita and should take better care of our kids. I know people blame teachers or administration and I was guilty of (that) at one time, but after going up to Olympia and going through the funding, it’s not our teachers. The teachers spend their own money on a lot of supplies for the kids, which they shouldn’t have to do. If bonds and levies don’t pass we’re going to have to make big cuts again. We don’t want our kids to be in a tough position not having the tools they need to learn and be ready for the world when other districts are leaps and bounds ahead of us. Please vote to better our community.”

“Yes on the replacement levy,” said community member Donna Simpson Shrider. “If it doesn’t pass, the district loses double the money because they won’t get the matching funds from the state either. The levy will not raise your taxes very much, if any. With more new residents, the fixed amount will be divided amongst more homeowners. For example, if the levy was $1,000, and there was 20 people paying for it, your share would be $50. Then let’s say five more people moved into the Battle Ground boundaries, your share would then be $40. Not realistic numbers, I know, but I’m just using them as an example.”

For full specifics regarding the Battle Ground School District’s proposed levy, check out this previous story https://www.clarkcountytoday.com/2017/01/13/battle-ground-school-district-officials-clarify-proposed-levy-tax-rates/ or check out our break down of levies and bonds on this February’s ballot in the map graphic contained with ClarkCountyToday.com’s overview of levies and bonds story.

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About The Author

Joanna Nicole Yorke is a 2010 graduate of the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University in Pullman. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism with a minor in political science. Yorke is a Clark County native, growing up on her family's 12-acre farm in La Center where her family still resides today. She was previously a reporter at The Reflector Newspaper, covering the city of Battle Ground, the Battle Ground School District and a variety of other areas and topics.

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