Washougal High grad recalls school levy failure in early ’80s

Athletics, yearbooks, assemblies and field trips were all on chopping block

Laurie (Janson) Johnson is pictured in her Washougal High School senior class photo during the 1981-82 school year. The Washougal School District's failed levy in 1981 led to "an impact on my senior year that is, to an extent, still felt," Johnson said. (Contributed photo courtesy of Laurie Johnson)

The consequences of the Washougal School District’s failed educational programs and operations (EPO) levy of 1981 had severe repercussions on Laurie Johnson’s senior year at Washougal High School, creating an impact that she is, to some extent, still feeling.

“There are times that I wish I had a yearbook from my senior year to look back on, recall someone’s name, etc.,” said Johnson, a Washougal resident and 1982 WHS graduate. “It was the one year that I went to state in track, was on the school record-breaking girls relay team, and was also prom queen. It would have been nice to have had a yearbook with these events to share with my kids.”

In addition to the yearbook, levy failure-related budget cuts also forced the school to eliminate assemblies, field trips and the student newspaper that year, Johnson said. Athletics were also “on the chopping block,” according to Johnson, but some were saved due to the efforts of parents who solicited donations and “paid out of their own pockets” for their children to participate. The district was forced to waylay maintenance operations and curtail transportation services as well, she said.

“And I’m sure there were many other cuts that I was never even aware of,” Johnson added. “(They) put a haze over the whole school atmosphere.”

Washougal’s students and educators of today will have to face similar reductions if the district’s EPO and capital projects levies fail for a second time on Tuesday, April 25.

Voters rejected both replacement measures on Tuesday, Feb. 14. If they reject the levy proposals again in April, the district will be forced to cut millions of dollars from its budget — and many educational programs and activities — for the 2023-24 school year.

“Technology was way less advanced (back then) than it is now,” Johnson said, “and I can only imagine how the students would be affected by the cuts that will be necessary if the levy continues to fail. … I just don’t like living in a community that has had failed levies.”

The Washington state government is required to supply school districts with funding for “basic education,” and most districts also receive some federal funding. But the government funds don’t cover many educational services and programs, as Johnson knows from personal experience.

“My mother spearheaded a track and field fundraiser so that we could even have a (season) at all,” she said. “An auction and other fundraisers were held, and there were many donations from local businesses. Our track coach refused to be paid for that season. Funds were needed, however, to pay for transportation to and from meets, as well as any equipment needed.

“My brother and his friends played basketball, which also necessitated fundraising and parents shelling out cash for the kids to play,” she continued. “They even had a parent drive around a church ‘Sunday School’ bus to take them to and from away games.”

Johnson also recalled that parents were forced to pay for their children to be transported to and from schools.

“I lived some distance from school, and my parents always paid extra to help cover other students whose parents didn’t pay,” she said. “Still, there were many months that not enough money was collected and we did not have school buses.”

Washougal School Board member Chuck Carpenter also experienced the fallout of a double-levy failure when he was teaching in the South Kitsap School District in Port Orchard, Washington, in 1969.

“They laid off all the music teachers and all the physical education teachers and a whole bunch of other folks to balance the budget,” Carpenter said during a board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 21. “But the important thing was not the loss of curriculum or what happened to the individuals. The important thing was, I went back the following year to visit the school where I had taught, and for economic reasons, they started school at 10 a.m. and let out at 3 p.m. That was to give the teachers planning time because they’re required (to have that time) by contract. So here’s a school with all of these teachers sitting in their empty classrooms at 9 a.m. because of a double levy failure.

“I have seen what happens to schools when they have a double-levy failure. I don’t want it to happen here.”

If approved, the levies would replace the district’s three-year EPO and instructional technology levies, which are set to expire at the end of 2023.

The proposed EPO levy rates for 2023-25 would be lower than the rates voters approved in 2020: $1.99 per $1,000 assessed property value (APV) in 2024, 2025 and 2026, down from $2.14 per $1,000 APV in 2021, 2022 and 2023. If approved, the levy would collect $9.5 million in 2024, $10.5 million in 2025 and $11.5 million in 2026.

The bulk of the current EPO levy pays for student learning and staffing (42%) as well as operations and maintenance (29%) needs not covered by state or federal revenues. The remainder pays for athletics and activities (13%), instructional support (12%) and health and safety (4%) needs, also not covered by state or federal funds.

According to the school district, the replacement EPO levy would provide funding for a variety of programs and services, including librarians, secretaries, paraeducators, textbooks, curriculum development, food service, the district’s AVID program, events for Spanish-speaking families, preschool, art, music, advanced placement classes, the district’s highly capable program, professional development and training, substitute teachers and classified staff, special education teachers and support staff, English language learner support, athletics, coaches, advisors, transportation, custodians, grounds and maintenance staff, fuel, vehicles, security staff, counselors, nurses and family community resource coordinators.

Starting in 2025, the funds would also increase opportunities for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) and visual and performing arts, district leaders said.

WSD leaders recommended keeping the replacement capital facilities and technology levy rate at 21 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value (APV) in 2024, then increasing it to 84 cents per $1,000 APV (2025) and to 85 cents per $1,000 APV in 2026, to help the district address several long-term maintenance and safety needs, including new security door access systems; a new roof at Washougal High School; new boilers and control systems for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in the district’s older buildings; new flooring; and doors at main building entrances that will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The school district projected the levy would collect $950,000 in 2024, $3.95 million in 2025, and $4.15 million in 2026.

‘If we continue to lose our levies, we won’t be able to keep up’

Washougal School District leaders are most likely aware of the other districts in Washington state that have been forced to make significant budget reductions in the last year due to the loss of levy funding.

The Kennewick School District in Southeast Washington ran an EPO levy that failed to pass in February 2022 and again two months later.

“We scaled what was going to be a four-year replacement levy back to a two-year replacement levy and scale the amount down as well,” Kennewick Superintendent Traci Pearce told KUOW, a Seattle-based radio station, in 2022. “It was about a percentage point away from passing, unfortunately. So we’re faced with, for the budget for the 2022-23 school year, a double levy failure and a loss of that revenue.”

The district, which serves about 18,800 students and is Kennewick’s largest employer, lost $34 million, including $20 million in local levy revenue and $14 million in local education agency funding, for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years.

It reduced its operating budget by $5 million by cutting administrative, maintenance and operations, custodial, teaching, curriculum development, and secretarial positions, and scaling back its curriculum adoption and maintenance activities.

The district used $10 million of its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) COVID-19 relief funding and $15 million of its fund balance “to avoid (more) significant cuts to staffing and programs for the 2022-23 school year,” according to its website.

The levy passed on its third attempt in February 2023. If it had failed once again, the district would’ve been forced to cut roughly $25 million from its budget, reductions that would’ve “deeply slashed” staffing, sports and other programs starting in the 2023-24 school year, according to the Tri-City Herald.

One of the Kennewick School District’s neighbors, the Finley School District in rural Benton County, also failed to pass an EPO levy twice in 2022. Without the levy dollars, the district had to reduce spending by about $1.7 million, superintendent Lance Hahn told KNDU, a Kennewick-based television station in 2022.

The reduced budget stopped the district from buying new curriculum in some areas and hiring staff in others, increasing class sizes by five to 10 students, according to Hahn.

The district, which operates three schools and serves about 900 students, was also forced to remove a band teacher position and 15 coaching positions.

“One of the things that is kind of unique to us, as we’re so close to Kennewick and Pasco and Richland, is that we can’t compete and pay our people the same that they can. We just can’t do that,” Hahn told YakTriNews.com earlier this year. “… If we continue to lose our levies, we won’t be able to keep up, and we’ll be at a very generic, I guess the best way to call it, curriculum.

“Our kids are our future. Every one of us that have gone to a public school has had somebody that has stepped up that doesn’t have a kid in the district or a relative in the district and paid those levy dollars so that all of us could have an education.”

The levy passed on its third attempt in 2023.

The Lakewood School District in Snohomish County failed to pass its technology and facilities levy in 2022.

“(We have) things like the fire control alarm system upgrade that we really need to do at some point. We had roofs that we were going to replace,” Lakewood Superintendent Scott Peacock told KUOW in 2022. “Some carpets are worn and need to be replaced in our buildings. We have a boiler at one of our elementary schools that we’ve kind of been operating on a wing and a prayer for several years now that we’re going to continue to work with and nurse along.”