School Board candidates Doy, Grez discuss possible budget cuts, balancing tax increases and education funding, how to best prepare students

Linda Hamm Grez is challenging Geoff Doy for his Snoqualmie Valley School Board Director District 2 seat in the November 5th General Election. We posed three questions to the candidates and appreciate their willingness to provide answers below.

Although these candidates must live within the boundaries of District 2 (one of two North Bend districts), they represent all SVSD students and families and are elected by all Snoqualmie Valley voters.

King County Elections will begin mailing out ballots on October 16th. Ballots must be returned by mail or deposited in drop boxes located in front of the Fall City, North Bend and Snoqualmie Libraries by election day. See drop box locations HERE.

[Candidate answers below begin alphabetically and then alternate.]

Snoqualmie Valley residents have seen rapidly rising property tax bills over the past few years, with a lot of those increases attributed to the state’s McCleary solution to fund education and SVSD’s 2015 school bond.  How do you propose balancing the need to fully fund education and local residents’ worry that they cannot afford more tax increases?

Geoff Doy: Washington State revenues come primarily from sales taxes and property taxes. Our state does not levy personal or corporate income tax, therefore, the burden for paying for education and all other services falls on these sources of revenue. There is resistance to increasing sales tax because it disproportionately impacts low income families. Property taxes based on assessed property values are seen to be fairer to low income families and seniors. 

Most education funding comes from property taxes. The McCleary decision transferred the responsibility for a large portion of education funding from local taxes to state taxes. In our district, the overall schools tax rate has gone down since the McCleary decision, even after consideration of an increased technology levy that was passed by our residents to provide enhanced technology to our students .But King County increased the assessed value of most homes, so an individual tax bill may have risen. As a result of the McCleary funding and ongoing local support of our levies, the school district budget has increased by $20m, which allowed me to support the hiring dozens of elementary teachers to reduce class sizes, to increase counsellors, and increase staff compensation.  This was important to me to help our staff afford to live in and around our district and to attract excellent teachers to work here.

The McCleary decision moved the State closer to meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund education however, there are still some gaps in what the State funds.  The State mandated full-day kindergarten and lower class sizes from kindergarten to third grade. These are terrific programs, but they require more classrooms and the State does not fund new buildings, those can only be built with local support. Because of this missing piece the board proposed, and the community supported, the 2015 bond. With that support came a property tax increase to build Timber Ridge Elementary School and our new High School.

The State fails to fully fund other programs.  Special Education, the School Employees Benefit program (SEBB) are examples. It also does not fully fund all our staff. The State bases its funding on a school district model that is out of date; for example, the model funds only one and a half nurses for our entire school district. The eleven nurses we employ are paid out of local taxes.

I hope we have seen the last of the property tax increases for quite a while. Whilst there are always programs that we would love to deploy I feel we are in a good place as a school district and headed in the right direction, thanks to the support of our community.

Linda Hamm Grez: Our growing community highly values education and our youth. They expect our kids will receive the best educational opportunities available.  Right now is a time of massive change and growth and it is hard to balance our values and vision with the tax burden.    

On the Revenue side of the District’s budget, School Districts are caught in a bind with the Legislature’s McCleary lawsuit ‘fix.’  It increased property taxes paid by homeowners and gave them to the State to allocate to school districts, while limiting how much local districts could levy in their local areas.  The Legislature also conditioned funding on lower class sizes, but has not helped Districts with capital funds to build the additional classrooms needed to accommodate them.  As a result, there is some additional funding but still nowhere near all that’s needed for ‘basic education, which is the State’s ‘paramount’ constitutional duty.  We must continue to advocate strongly for a better school funding system that should include other state revenue from other sources, not just property taxes.  The property tax burden is especially hard on those in our community with limited income.  There is some good news on property tax exemptions and deferrals for senior citizens and disabled citizens in King County: the qualifying household income level is rising to around $58,000, allowing more elderly and disabled people to qualify for it.   See the King County Assessor’s website page ‘Tax relief.’   

On the Expenses side, the District staff should identify potential cost savings while revenue is not enough.  The District should also reach out to families to begin the necessary dialogue to discuss priorities and possible options for budget changes.  It will not be easy but in order to get community buy-in of tough choices, more two-way and in depth communication will be needed. 

What education initiatives do you believe best prepare students for their futures, whether they are continuing their education or entering the workforce?

Linda Hamm Grez: The recent focus on social-emotional learning will prepare all students by acknowledging the huge importance of emotional well-being and mental health.  These are key to developing a ‘whole child’. Too often poor behavior choices and poor academic performance result from unresolved social and emotional forces that create barriers to student achievement.  Elementary school programs like PBIS teach kids to be mindful of the positive aspects of good behavior.  PBIS tools help teachers and counselors (not to forget playground para educator staff) to consistently align and teach kids how to manage themselves.  In today’s world of social media pressure kids can increasingly become overwhelmed and maladjusted as they hit puberty.  Having skills to identify and cope with their own strong emotions as well as others’ feelings is useful to all students in school and after – whether they will continue post-secondary studies or enter the workforce.  

The ability to communicate effectively and respectfully is already necessary in most work settings where team-based and project-based skills are used, whether it be code-writing, engineering, specialized construction or health care.  Social-emotional learning provides the baseline for successful high school project-based academics as well.

Another good initiative is the expansion of CTE (career and technical ed) programs which expose students to the tools and materials used in our modern world.  Welding, 3-D printing and engineering plastics and metals are critically important today.  A base line of knowledge of how things are made will not only help students understand our world but they may engage students in the hands-on trade work that is increasingly well-paid and satisfying as a career.  Academic subjects are brought to life by building and exploring objects made and the geometry, physics and chemistry that describe it.   

Geoff Doy: This question goes to the heart of my school board goals. Each year we graduate 96% of our high school students, approximately five hundred kids. Each student is different and each one deserves an education that suits his or her talents, goals, and aspirations. Initiatives in our CTE program, hands on courses with dual credit and workforce relevance will prepare some of our students for their future. Our program of AP courses suits students who may be focused on a four year degree. Our athletic, music and arts programs support another group. Our Special Education and Life Skills programs play a huge part in supporting those students that need extra help.  My objective for all students is to get a well-rounded education through elementary and middle school and have choices to pursue their individual ambitions in High School. The goal is PERSONALIZED LEARNING that gives EVERY child the opportunity to choose the path that fulfills their potential

Currently the district’s 2020-21 forecast operating budget assumes $2 million in operating cost cuts. What cost savings measures would you explore to help balance next year’s budget?

Geoff Doy: Careful financial management by the school administration team and a strategy from the board, has left our General Fund Balance in a healthy state. This allowed the board to support a potential $2 million draw down on the fund balance in 2019/2020 but this is not sustainable over multiple years. I supported this decision for two reasons: 

Next year’s budget is conservative; in past years we have beaten our targets and we may do the same as we close out the 2018/2019 year. Some of our assumptions allowed for worse case scenarios. For example, the incremental costs of the new high school are estimated and until we have a full year of operation, it is smart to assume on the high side. Also, our understanding of the impact of the new State mandated SEBB is incomplete. The procedures falling out from the legislation are still unclear. We believe that the impact from this program will cost the district an additional $1.3 million. 

The second factor I considered stemmed from conversations I had with State Senator Mark Mullet and State Representatives Lisa Callan and Bill Ramos. I came away from those meetings with some optimism that the State may address the underfunding of special education programs and some of the anomalies in SEBB next year.  A recent conversation with Chris Reykdal, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction re-enforced my optimism. As the Legislative Representative for the Board, I will be on top of the discussions in Olympia in the new year.

I am in a wait and see mode; we have a sustainable budget for next year and will have more information as the year progresses. If we must make savings next year my goal will be to ensure those savings have the least impact on our children.

Linda Hamm Grez: At the same time that traditional funding methods are drastically changing and likely to continue to change for several years, our District is undergoing huge enrollment growth, building huge school projects, launching wide new technology programs, and trying to attract and retain excellent teaching and other staff.  It will take a while for the new patterns and needs to emerge and be planned for.  The District has wisely kept a reserve fund of over $9 million to help manage any crises.  But these changes also provide an opportunity to mature the District in a variety of ways, to modernize ways of working and upgrade administration to meet 21st century expectations.

At recent School Board meetings, conservative forecasts showed the potential shortfalls of the next few budget cycles.  However, with the State funding amounts still uncertain for ’20-21, it is still unpredictable how much revenue to expect.  Enrollment is rising, property values are rising, more homes are being constructed and there will be more updating from the State regarding its funding this winter. 

New State rules regarding providing benefits for part-time employees working over 600 hours will add benefit expense, however it may be somewhat counterbalanced by higher employee retention rates and fewer PT employees to manage so we will have to see how that change settles out.  The District should create scenarios to identify a preferred target PT staffing model to minimize costs overall.

If cuts are required, the District should involve our community in an in-depth discussion about options.  Since the majority of the budget is labor/staffing, there may be ways to do easier reductions through attrition and restructuring jobs.  The District could also work with SVEA and other unions to identify short-term strategies for budgets.  In addition, the District has many talented administration and classified staff in our schools who could suggest reductions in costs.  They are on the ‘front lines’ and know where the best opportunities for savings lie.

Geoff Doy (left) and Linda Hamm Grez (right)

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