Between wild weather, changes in COVID procedures, and two levy renewals on the upcoming ballot, there’s been no shortage of news for the White River School District this winter.
“If you have a crystal ball, that would be very helpful,” assistant superintendent Scott Harrison joked in a recent interview breaking down what’s ahead for the school district.
Voters in the White River School District will have two propositions on the ballot this election season. Feb. 8 is the deadline to register to vote and to turn in a ballot. Ballots were mailed, and ballot boxes opened, on Jan. 21.
School districts receive most of their funding from the state, but generally rely on voter-approved levies to fill the rest of their budgets. Both of the levies on the ballot — the operations levy and the technology levy — are not new taxes, but voters have the opportunity to renew them every four years.
The current total school district property tax rate — $4.36 per $1,000 of assessed value — is made up of those two levies and a voter-approved bond in 2016.
If both levies were renewed, the overall tax rate would actually be lower than it is now: $4.07 in 2023.
Harrison credited the reduced tax rate in the levy renewals to the district’s board of directors focusing on the “must haves” — like structural repairs and updating technology — and leaving many of the “would-be-nice-to-haves” out.
In 2021, Pierce County assessed the average property value in the White River School District at $447,848. That means the average homeowner was taxed around $1,953 last year for schools.
Based on that value, the average homeowner would then be taxed around $1,823 next year if both levies pass, and would be taxed around $623 if neither passed.
Res. No 21-22 would renew the current Educational Programs and Operations levy, which makes up roughly 15 percent of the district’s annual budget. The money would pay for early learning, special education, nursing and mental health services, security, staff costs, athletics, music, drama and other arts programs.
The estimated rates, plus the total amount of money the district plans to raise, are:
- 2023: $2.19 rate for a total of $11,200,000
- 2024: $2.22 rate for a total of $12,000,000
- 2025: $2.23 rate for a total of $12,800,000
- 2026: $2.24 rate for a total of $13,600,000
Res. No 21-23 renews the district’s capitol levy. The money is used for structural, roofing, safety and energy repairs, road improvements, and modernizing classroom technology. For instance, the district has outfitted classrooms across the district with new laptops thanks to the current tech levy.
Here’s how the math breaks down on that levy:
- 2023: $0.49 rate for a total of $2,500,000.
- 2024: $0.52 rate for a total of $2,800,000.
- 2025: $0.57 rate for a total of $3,300,000.
- 2026: $0.57 rate for a total of $3,500,000.
THE STATE OF COVID
Staffing challenges and COVID case rates are pushing some school districts around the state to cancel classes or bring back online learning. White River isn’t one of them, and will continue to view the shift from in-class learning as a last resort, Harrison said.
A plan is in place if staffing shortages or disease outbreaks force them back to online learning, Harrison said, but it’s not something they’re planning to do.
“Frankly, in March of 2020, it was ‘close schools down for two to three weeks to flatten the curve, then open back up,’” Harrison said. “We know what that brought us, and it’s not an effective strategy.”
Schools aren’t sites of major COVID transmission, but they aren’t “islands” either, Harrison said: “When we see increased COVID activity in the community, we see increased COVID activity in the schools.”
But he stressed that school is one of the “safest places to be” in terms of COVID transmission.
According to White River’s COVID-19 dashboard, 894 total positive caves had been counted across the district by Jan. 21. Only 10 of them are “likely” to have originated at school.
Harrison acknowledged that they’ve faced “some staffing challenges” — specifically in mid-January, when the district did not have enough subs to fill for teachers who were out for about a week. Some educators were out due to getting COVID and others stayed out due to being close contacts of COVID-positive folks.
The district had plans in place, including dividing classes up among remaining teachers or having educators like Music and P.E. teachers cover classes, Harrison said.
“There’s always a challenge to fill spots,” Harrison said. “Subs are at a premium, and we’re not the only district … (which) would like to have a larger sub pool. … But we’ve been able to navigate it pretty successfully.”
In a letter to parents, WRSD Superintendent Janel Keating Hambly dove into some recent changes from the state Department of Health to COVID policies, including the recently reduced requirements for quarantining laid out by the State Department of Health.
Those changes “will enable students and staff to return to school sooner than previously following a positive test or exposure,” she wrote.
The district has been asking state rule-makers like Governer Jay Inslee and the Department of Health to phase out contact tracing for broader “test-to-stay” protocols, which allows close contacts of those who get COVID to stay in school as long as they test negative for the virus. (That’s an alternative to the quarantine system, in which those close contacts have to stay home for five days.)
“Test-to-stay” has already been expanded from just classroom contacts to also include athletics and other extracurriculars, Harrison said.
“Now the state said, OK, if you’re a classroom, athletic, or home close contact, you are still able to test to stay in school,” Harrison said. “It keeps more of our kids learning in the classroom … and it’s not ignoring the realities of COVID. We are testing multiple times within that window to ensure they do not have COVID.”
Contact tracing, meanwhile, is simply no longer an efficient use of school time and resources, Harrison said. Ninety-seven percent or more of the students shown to be contacts of COVID cases don’t end up testing positive, he said, and when students wear masks in class, the transmission rate is only 1.37 percent, according to Keating Hambly’s letter.
“We’ve been collecting the data since September 2021 … and the return on that investment is not significant enough to warrant it,” Harrison said. “Schools are not vectors of COVID transmission, and we’ve demonstrated that consistently over the last year and a half.”
The district continues to send out notifications to parents when their students are close contacts of COVID cases, Harrison said.
SCHOOL BOARD VACANCY
White River also has a vacancy on their school board that the district is hoping to fill.
Those interested in the position must live in District 3, which includes south Prairie and much of Wilkeson. Applications are due by Feb. 25, and whoever is appointed will serve until the next school board election in fall 2022. They could choose at that time to run for a standard four-year term.
For questions about eligibility or the responsibilities of the job, residents should contact the office of Superintendent Janel Keating Hambly at (360) 829-3814 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Applications can be sent to the superintendent email, or to the superintendent’s office at: White River School District P.O. Box 2050, 240 North A Street Buckley, WA 98321. The district hopes to select a candidate soon and be able to deliver their oath of office by the March 9 meeting.