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Spokane-area schools with failed bond proposals ponder next steps

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(The Center Square) – Thirteen school districts in Spokane County saw 17 of 18 funding levies get approved by voters during Feb. 13 special elections.

But five of those school districts – Spokane, West Valley, Cheney, Riverside, and Deer Park – are considering future options after their long-term, multi-million-dollar construction bond proposals failed to garner enough voter support for passage.

“We are beginning to reflect upon our processes and to gather community input on the next steps in potentially re-running the bond,” Cheney School District superintendent Ben Ferney said in an emailed reply Friday to The Center Square.

Ferney says the district intends to distribute a community survey to gather feedback regarding the failed bond and two levy measures that passed with solid support.

“In addition to gathering feedback and addressing concerns, we will work together with district administrators and our board of directors on a plan moving forward,” said Ferney.

West Valley School District superintendent Kyle Rydell expressed similar comments on Monday.

“We will be working with our school board and our facility planning committee in the coming weeks to look at options moving forward,” said Rydell.

In Washington state, school levies are typically limited to four years or less and only need a simple majority – 50% plus one vote – for passage. But long-term bond measures – often 20 years or more in duration – need 60% approval plus a minimum 40% turnout of the number of voters within the district who cast ballots in the last general election. Generally, it’s said that school levies pay for programs while bonds pay for buildings.

Given current economic uncertainties, area voters may have been willing to renew most property tax levies set to expire at the end of this year, but unwilling to commit to new, additional taxes to pay off construction bonds over the next two decades.

Within the Cheney School District, voters okayed renewal of three-year educational programs and operations levy with an estimated property tax rate of $1.97 per $1,000 of assessed valuation that will collect $16.1 million in 2025, $17.1 million in 2026 and $17.95 million in 2027. They also passed a second levy proposal for technology, security, and infrastructure improvements at a rate of 9 cents per $1,000 that will collect between $740,000 and $820,000 annually in the coming three years.

But Cheney’s bond proposal faltered with 54.4% voter approval – a majority, but not the super-majority margin needed for passage. The $72 million, 21-year bond proposition aimed to finance the construction of a new elementary school in Airway Heights, add building sections at four other schools and make district-wide infrastructure improvements that include expanding school kitchens and upgrading HVAC systems.

West Valley’s replacement EPO levy passed with over 55% of the vote. With an estimated rate of $2.44 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, it will collect from $9.83 million in 2025 to $10.8 million by 2027. But the district’s $92 million, 21-year bond proposal – for constructing a new middle school, adding kindergartens to elementary schools, and adding a shared-campus building for the high school and “city school” – failed at 50.7%.

Rydell said the district lost its lease for an early learning center, so the kindergarten additions at two elementary schools will move forward regardless of the bond loss. “The board is considering … how we fund these without bond revenue,” he said. “We will most likely need to borrow money to create these spaces for the fall of 2025.”

The Spokane School District’s three-year replacement levy passed at over 56%. It will collect $95 million to $103 million in years 2025 to 2027 at an estimated rate of $2.50 per $1,000. The district’s proposed 20-year, $200 million bond measure received 55.9% of the vote, but still short of the needed 60%. That proposition called for renovating or replacing eight school properties and making district-wide safety, technology and other capital improvement projects. Superintendent Adam Swinyard did not reply to an email seeking comment about future plans.

Voters in the Deer Park and Riverside school districts also passed replacement EPO levies at over 55% but rejected bond measures of $62 million and $73 million, respectively.

Other Spokane-based school districts that received levy approval included Central Valley, East Valley, Great Northern, Liberty, Mead, Medical Lake, and Nine Mile Falls. The Freeman School District got its replacement EPO levy approved, but voters turned down a second levy proposal for safety and technology improvements.

Spokane County elections officials certified all ballot results on Friday. Overall voter turnout was listed at 35.6%.

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