by Pia K. Hansen

Neighbors helping neighbors," that's what it says in bright white letters on the awning of the Alton's Tires store downtown. "Just two great guys who like to sell tires..." chimes one radio jingle. These are just regular people, trying to make a living in this hard world of war, crime and... school levies?

Last spring, Duane Alton's wife put her maiden name, Andree Rabe, on a flyer that school officials say was instrumental in defeating the Mead School District's technology bond for the second time in a row. That mailer said the tech proposal would go "beyond the scope of 'requirement' to 'luxury,' " warning residents that they would have to pay $414 in new property taxes on a $100,000 property if the proposal passed. What the mailer neglected to mention was that the $414 was to be paid over six years -- that amounts to $69 a year. Supporters of the Mead bond were furious, calling the flier purposefully deceitful.

Today, almost a year later, it looks like history could repeat itself.

As the special election on March 11 is drawing closer, large ads have appeared in The Spokesman-Review attacking Spokane Public Schools for trying to pass "special excess levy and bond issues" at the same time as "our schools are failing."

"All school districts do receive 100% funding for basic education. You have to work a longer work week to pay these excess taxes," one ad claims.

The ads are paid for by a group called So Tired of Paying (STOP), and guess who's one of the main contributors to the campaign? Duane Alton.

"The ads are simply not correct. They present a very narrow vision of what basic education is," says Steve Walker, a general contractor from Spokane who co-chairs the Yes for Kids campaign in support of the levy and bond issue. "People can disagree with us, but they should do so accurately. The levy is not an excess tax; it replaces what is already there."

The familiar dark blue "Yes for Kids" signs and buttons have popped up across Spokane in support of the school district, and just last week a new support group arrived on the scene. Its name? TIRES.

"It stands for 'Teachers in Rage -- Enjoy Schwab,'" says Marge Tibbits, a teacher in the Central Valley School District, referring to the name of one of Alton's business competitors. "But it's not just for teachers -- anyone can be part of this.

"Let me tell you, teachers are all hacked off about this Alton thing," says Tibbits.

On the Ballot -- Spokane Public Schools has two issues on the March 11 ballot. One is a levy to replace the current three-year levy, which was last approved in March 2000. That levy would cost property tax payers $42 per $100,000 property value annually over the next three years.

"The tax rate will actually drop by a nickel compared to the levy we are asking to replace," says Dr. Brian Benzel, superintendent for Spokane Public Schools. "That levy accounts for 15 percent of our budget, or $43 million annually. The state will match that amount with $9 million."

He adds that the state covers 65 percent and federal funds cover 14 percent of the district's budget.

"It is simply not true that the state covers our budget 100 percent already," says Benzel. "We have unfunded mandates, too. We need the levy to meet our legal obligations. Special education is, for instance, one very important area where federal and state law demands we serve all students. And we have a disproportionate share of special education students in this area of the state." He attributes the high number of special education students to the area's well-documented meth and poverty problems.

"If parents are on drugs, it has an effect on the students in our schools," says Benzel.

A compelling argument? Not according to the folks in STOP.

"They're always going to make these claims," writes John Beal, STOP's spokesman in an

e-mail, the only way he would answer our questions. "This is how you justify their constant appeal for more money. I challenge their premise: More money means better product. Nonsense! It is time to examine our presuppositions and develop new paradigms... The meth and poverty problems belong to another jurisdiction, not the schools."

Beal writes that he started STOP in September to "oppose the lies and fear tactics of the Spokane Transit Authority." The public transportation organization was seeking extra funds to continue to operate at a full scale. When the levy didn't pass, the cuts STA had said would be necessary if new funding wasn't secured never materialized.

When asked why STOP took out ads in the Spokesman, Beal writes: "We wanted to reach the public with another view of levies and bonds... The schools are simply living outside their budgets, just like our families and government."

But Benzel doesn't buy those allegations or the notions that the school district isn't managing its money well enough or is taxing area residents too much.

"We are in the middle-to-lower end of the tax rate when compared to other districts," says Benzel. "We have a very low administrative overhead compared to the rest of the state. And as far as being held accountable, I have the school board asking stewardship questions of me every two weeks."

If the levy doesn't pass, there is no way around cuts in the instructional programs.

"The levy will hire enough teachers to keep classes smaller and fund some elective programs. It will also fund textbooks, librarians, special education teachers, sports and debate -- that type of thing," says Walker.

If the levy doesn't pass, is there any other funding in the district's budget to cover the loss?

"There are no secret funds. And yes, the district has already tightened its belt -- it's no secret what the state's budget situation is like, so we went through those cuts last year," says Walker.

The Bond Issue -- The second issue on the ballot is a school construction bond, asking for $165,350,000 to fund facility improvements ranging from building safety and technology upgrades, new boilers and flooring and replacement of three elementary schools -- Lidgerwood, Lincoln Heights and Ridgeview. Though 50 years old, these schools were originally built as temporary structures.

If the bond passes, Shadle and Rogers High Schools would both undergo major renovation and modernization, but every school in the district will have some maintenance done.

The bond will cost $3.50 per month per $100,000 of assessed property value, or $42 a year.

To determine which schools would be in line for what repairs, the district recently underwent a thorough examination of its property and formulated a comprehensive plan for maintenance.

"We studied the mechanics and structures at the different schools, then ranked them from greatest need to least need, before we decided what should be done where," says Benzel. "This is not some sort of wish list -- a wish list would be five times as long. People forget that we have four million square feet of buildings to take care of."

Beal disagrees. He writes that the schools he is familiar with are in "sufficient" shape.

"I have taught a class for the public at Shadle. I have a friend who teaches there, so I am familiar with the school," he writes. "My daughter lives one block from Rogers High School, so I pass by that school often. If the kids are allowed to do inside what they do outside, they don't deserve a new environment."

The Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Council have endorsed both the levy and the bond, in part because of the positive impact on the local economy the measures would have in jobs.

In order for the levy to pass, 40 percent of the voters who turned out at the last general election must vote at the special election, and of those, 60 percent must vote in the affirmative

Walker says the plan the school district has come up with is the only way of effectively addressing maintenance.

"We have seen what happens when things are allowed to deteriorate, as in our roads and bridges. Then it becomes a catastrophic problem," says Walker. "Short of [money] falling out of the sky, there's no way we can finance these repairs."

Election Day is Tuesday,

March 11.

Publication date: 03/06/03

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