BGPS seeking second try at local levy

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Voters in the Battle Ground Public Schools’ district will have an opportunity to vote on a replacement for an expiring local levy that if approved could mean the decades-long return of middle school sports, or if denied, could cut deeply into the district’s operations.

In the November general election, voters in the district will decide on an educational programs and operations levy, which would replace the district’s current levy beginning in 2022. The levy funds programs and resources across the district, from technology, to electives, to building maintenance and transportation.

The district placed a levy before voters earlier this year, but the ballot measure was defeated when about 52.4 percent of voters opposed the measure in February. In July, the board approved placing a levy on the ballot again for the November election.

The estimated rate of the levy is $1.99 per $1,000 of assessed value on properties, lower than the current $2.32 per $1,000 of assessed value. The new levy would cost residents about $123 less on their annual property tax on a $450,000 home.

If passed, the levy would collect $26.75 million in 2022, $28.2 million in 2023, $29.65 million in 2024 and $31.1 million in 2025.

“Not only is the rate going down, but also the amount collected is going down,” BGPS Superintendent Denny Waters said, as this year the district is collecting $28.3 million.

For the 2020-2021 school year, the levy made up about 14 percent of the district’s budget. During the creation of the budget for this school year, the district approved one that assumes there would be no levy in 2022, cutting that funding percentage in half.

The district has experienced double failures on levy votes before, most recently in 2006. The lack of a levy has “far-reaching” effects, Waters said, adding personnel cuts are always a result of a levy failure. He noted he joined the district as the assistant principal at Battle Ground High School after that position was cut at all schools in the district.

“We had building principals running entire buildings by themselves,” Waters said.

He added past levy failures led to the district not having its own transportation system or middle school sports, something it planned on reintroducing for the first time since the 1990s before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled those plans.

Apart from losing quality employees due to staff cuts, Waters said it is hard to recruit new staff given the potential for those hired to be out of a job if the levy isn’t approved.

“You kind of end up back toward the required parts of education, so anything that’s considered extra gets to be placed on the chopping block,” Waters said.

He listed getting rid of art and music programs, especially at earlier grade levels, reduction in bus routes and larger class sizes as some of the impacts.

BGPS Board President Mark Watrin said the educational requirements of school districts have changed since the past levy failures more than a decade ago. He recalled one of the failures occurred while he was a teacher and in order to handle it, the district moved to a five-period day.

“That’s not possible (to) allow kids to graduate anymore because the number of credit requirements now are larger,” Watrin said.

As part of planning for a scenario with no levy in 2022, the district’s budget for this school year cut into its reserve balance by $16.2 million, or close to half of the reserves. Moving forward without a levy would become more difficult as some of the remaining balance funds are tied to specific uses, Waters said, and couldn’t be used for other purposes.

“We were able to avoid (significant cuts) this year because we had that fund balance,” Waters said.

If the levy does pass, the district plans to move forward with curriculum adoptions that are due and plans to re-introduce middle school sports. Budget revisions would be approved by the board in December. Waters added the district may also look at filling some positions left vacant due to a hiring freeze.

Though the district could have taken another go at the levy as early as April, the board decided to wait until the general election to put it back on the ballot. Watrin said feedback indicated community members were uncertain on whether students would be back in in-person school.

“We felt going to November would give us the greatest chance of having kids back in school,” Watrin said.

Both Waters and Watrin recognized those in the community who oppose some district policies may decide to vote against the levy, though they pointed to the wide-ranging support the levy provides districtwide.

“Oftentimes people think about one thing that they’re not happy with, but the levy is so encompassing in terms of benefits it gives to students, from transportation, to lower class size, to sports opportunities, to individual instruction,” Watrin said.

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