OPINION: The good, bad and ugly in this week’s Camas school levies vote

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There is good news this week for Camas schools and the families who have flocked to this area so their children might attend one of the best school districts in the region — with about 20 percent of ballots still left to count, Camas School District voters are passing two replacement levies that represent nearly 20 percent of the school district’s budget. 

The Feb. 9 Special Election preliminary results published Tuesday night showed both levies passing by somewhat comfortable margins. 

The Educational Programs and Operations (EP&O) levy, which reduce Camas class sizes, funds sports programs and extracurricular activities, and pays for things like school nurses, transportation and food services, library staff and special education programs, was passing on election night by a 6-point margin: 53 to 47 percent.

The Technology, Health and Safety capital levy,  which funds technology for staff and students and pays for school building needs, including roofs, boilers and fire protection, was passing by a wider, 12-point margin, 56 to 44 percent.

The bad news? The percentage of voters supporting these levies, which school boosters in Camas say are critical to the district’s continued success, has dramatically withered since February 2017. 

Asked to replace these same EP&O and Technology levies in 2017, Camas School District voters showed overwhelming support for both. The EP&O levy passed by 36 points, with 68 percent of the vote. The technology levy passed in 2017 by 38 points, with 69 percent of the vote. 

The 2017 special election attracted fewer voters — 7,573 voters in 2017 compared to 8,602 this week — but the number of “yes” votes also decreased while “no” votes jumped. The EP&O levy, for instance, had 5,178 “yes” votes in 2017, but 590 fewer votes (4,588) on Feb. 9, along with 1,619 more “no” votes this year (4,014) compared to the 2,395 “no” votes cast in 2017. 

It is unclear why these changes took place. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts may have played a role. Or maybe the population of Camas is becoming more conservative when it comes to funding things like schools and community projects with taxes — as evidenced by massive failure of the 2019 city of Camas’ community-aquatic center bond proposition. 

Possibly, voters were swayed by levy opponents, who published a list of reasons why voters should reject the school levies on a website. 

Among the levy opponents’ reasons to vote no? “Operations Levy includes funding for school nurses, who in turn can make health referrals to students.” 

  1. We don’t see the damage here. 

But the website’s author, Margaret Tweet — a 2019 Camas City Council write-in candidate who said she had “input from residents and businesses facing harsh restrictions and economic hardship” — elaborates, stating “school health staff can refer a minor student for outside services such as a surgical abortion, at an outside facility, without parental notice or consent.” 

Oh! It’s about abortion, then? How ridiculous to assert voters should reject funding school nurses because one of them might help a vulnerable teenager procure an abortion. You know who else might help a scared teenager get an abortion? Other teenagers, family friends, a supportive aunt, guidance counselors, teachers and countless others. 

Tweet’s anti-levy website also hypes the dangers of the state’s new comprehensive sexual education curriculum, but if local voters really cared about preventing teenage abortions, they would know that one of the best ways to reduce teen abortion rates is to offer … yep, comprehensive sexual education in our schools. 

A 2008 University of Washington research study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed teens who received comprehensive sex education “were significantly less likely to report teen pregnancy” than those who had no formal sex ed in school or who had received an “abstinence only” education. 

Other studies show we can reduce teenage abortion rates by offering free or low-cost health care and contraceptive devices — one study published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health showed that, in 2013-14, the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare), through its requirement that insurers cover contraception without charging a copayment, helped bring abortion rates in the United States to its lowest point since 1973. Another study, conducted by University of Colorado researchers, showed that a $28 million grant funded by billionaire Warren Buffet that provided free IUDs through 75 public Colorado health clinics was, according to a 2017 Denver Post article, “the main reason Colorado’s teen birth rate fell 54 percent and the teen abortion rate declined 64 percent” from 2009 to 2017. 

Targeting school nurses, especially during a global pandemic in which one in three Americans now report knowing someone who has died from COVID-19, in the “vote no” campaign is a low blow. 

Camas has fewer than 10 school nurses to cover its 12 schools. If voters had blocked the replacement of the levies, the district would have likely needed to reduce this number to the 1.175 full-time school nurses funded by state resources. 

There is a reason the American Academy of Pediatrics advocates for a minimum of one full-time school nurse per school building: nurses are critical to the health and safety of our school children. 

Not only do school nurses help the one in four children who suffer from chronic illnesses such as asthma or diabetes, monitoring glucose levels, dispensing medications and responding to medical emergencies; and assist the increasing number of children and teens experiencing mental health or behavioral health issues — the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that, “in any given year, only about 12 percent of children in need of mental health services actually receive them” — these nurses are now on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic as children and teachers head back to the classroom. 

The majority of Camas families have been calling for faster school reopenings during this pandemic, with roughly three out of four families sending their students to school instead of choosing the remote-only option. 

Thanks to the voters who marked “yes” on their ballot this week, school nurses will be on hand to help monitor symptoms of COVID-19, assist students who become ill while at school, help the county with its contact tracing program, and make school reopenings that much safer for students, teachers, families and the entire Camas community.