Kent Superintendent explains pair of levies

Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas explained the reasoning behind the levies Jan. 9 during a Covington Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Kentlake High. The levies seek about $307 million in taxpayer dollars,

Kent School District voters will soon have their say on a pair of replacement levies as ballots should land in mailboxes by the end of next week.

Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas explained the reasoning behind the levies Jan. 9 during a Covington Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Kentlake High. The levies seek about $307 million in taxpayer dollars,

Vargas has made the levy informational presentation to a number of organizations throughout the district — the district legally cannot campaign on behalf of the levies or advocate voting to approve it.

If voters approve the levies, taxes will be collected over four years, with an increase of $246 annually for a homeowner with a house worth $250,000.

The superintendent explained to the chamber members the district has worked to help students do well based on a set of seven goals developed several years ago which drew on input from thousands of participants.

“Not only has achievement significantly increased … we’ve been able to really maximize and manage taxpayer dollars,” Vargas said. “Those seven goals have been driving everything we’ve been doing the last several years in the Kent School District and achievement has skyrocketed. That’s because of all the hard work of principals, teachers, staff, the community, everyone working together to ensure our students are successful.”

He noted that the district has also been on sound financial footing despite the impact of the recession.

Vargas explained the role of the measures on the ballot — a maintenance and operations levy as well as a technology levy — in the district’s budget.

“Even with the funding that was restored in last year’s legislature, which you probably heard was about $1.2 billion, in reality that was about $620 million,” Vargas said. “So, the local levy is really important to the school district.”

Especially given that though KSD is the fourth largest district in the state with 24,000 students, it doesn’t have the tax base other districts such as Seattle, Lake Washington and Bellevue.

The first levy, known as Proposition 1, would renew the maintenance and operations funds property owners in the district pay. Vargas said the district receives funding from three sources, with about 65 percent of its annual budget coming from the state, some 10 percent from the federal government and the rest from the operations levy.

“Another way to think about this is that about one out of every five people in the Kent School District are paid for (through the levy dollars),” Vargas said. “That’s how significant this levy is to the district.”

Vargas added that the district is the second largest employer in the Kent Valley behind The Boeing Co.

But, the operations levy doesn’t just cover the cost of employing people. It will also allow the district to begin phasing in programs such as elementary school band which were cut as part of efforts to save money during the lean years following the recession in 2008.

If approved, the operations levy funding will provide, maintain or restore a number of programs and services. For example, it would go toward improving safety and security at elementary schools, reduce overcrowding in classrooms, cover the costs of new textbooks and additional classroom supplies as well as special education services and substitute teachers.

As for the technology levy, Proposition 2, Vargas said the district’s Board of Directors first sought support for that about 12 years ago.

“If you compare what our kids have in terms of technology, in terms of what our teachers have … there’s not many districts which compare,” Vargas said. “We get significantly less than other school districts and yet we have been able to do significantly more. This is important to us because this four year levy allows us to continue paying the cost of technology kids use in the classroom on a daily basis.”

If approved, Proposition 2 funding will pay for new mobile computing devices for elementary students, replacing computers in elementary schools as well as replace laptops for teachers, middle and high school students.

It is also important, Vargas said, to prepare students for the use of technology particularly given how rapidly it is changing. He took his cell phone and held it up, then said that someday those will be obsolete, especially with products such as Google Glass on the horizon.

“If you think about the technology, these things will be a thing of the past,” Vargas said. “As the technology changes, how do we prepare our kids for the future and how to compete.”

In 2010, both levies were approved with about 54 percent of the vote, and the combined cost totaled about $240 million. It did not include new taxes at the time but was a continuation of taxes from levies approved in 2006.

“As a district, we cannot advocate for this,” Vargas said. “But, we can encourage you to vote.”

Ballots will be mailed Jan. 22 and must be returned by Feb. 11.