Where School Bonds Go to Die

Central Valley School District's bond and levy package wouldn't increase property taxes a dime — but don't tell that to Duane Alton

Where School Bonds Go to Die
Daniel Walters
Duane Alton: Still fighting against school bonds and levies.

Central Valley School District is crammed. It's been like this for years, ever since Liberty Lake exploded. In the past few years, house after house has sprung up in the empty patches between Liberty Lake and Spokane, driving the population higher and higher. The district has grown by 1,700 students in the past decade, far exceeding its capacity, and that's just the beginning.

"We expect over the next five years to add another 900 students," Central Valley Superintendent Ben Small says, motioning at the district map on the wall of his office. "For us, this election is about the future."

Voters throughout the county have received ballots, due Feb. 10, asking them to approve bonds or levies in their local districts, including Central Valley, Spokane, Cheney and West Valley.

In Central Valley's case, passing the bond would mean renovations and expansions of five elementary schools and one middle school, construction of a new elementary school and numerous other rehabs and security upgrades. Renewing the levy would continue to fund more than a fifth of the operating budget, paying for things like technology, textbooks, security, sports, and music and art classes.

The problem? Spokane Valley is where school bonds go to die.

Levies are easy, requiring only a majority of voters to pass. But bonds? They require a 60 percent approval. The Central Valley School District hasn't passed a bond since 1998 (the year Titanic won Best Picture at the Oscars), when voters funded two brand-new high schools.

Unlike every other district in the region, Central Valley faces a familiar antagonist.

Tireless opposition

Sitting in the lobby of the Mirabeau Park Hotel, Duane Alton has an old pocket calculator, a legal pad and a copy of the bright yellow fliers he's been sending throughout Central Valley.

At 78, Alton has a gray-haired Alan Alda look. These days, the former owner of Alton's Tires, famous for its "neighbors helping neighbors" radio ad jingle, is retired.

He smiles as he talks softly about why he's fought so many bonds and levies over so many years. He doesn't seize upon any of the hot topics of education — nothing about Common Core, standardized tests, math instruction, class size, teacher evaluations, charter schools or any specific bond construction proposal.

To him, the problem is philosophical. "There's something inherently wrong about [voters] getting together and ganging up on their neighbors to take their money," Alton says.

He believes that schools should survive purely on what they get from the state and he's raised more than $13,000 to defeat Central Valley's bond and levy. That's less than a sixth of what Central Valley's supporters have raised, but it's still a credible threat.

In 2002, he was blamed for defeating a Mead School District technology bond. He's been blanketing districts in Spokane County with advertisements ever since, often crusading against bond and levy measures in tiny districts like Great Northern and Reardan-Edwall, or in districts hundreds of miles away, like the Battle Ground School District in southwest Washington.

But this time, he says, his sights are set only on Central Valley. After all, this is where he lives.

"This is the local one to me," Alton says.

How to pass a bond

Spokane Valley City Councilman Chuck Hafner, meanwhile, knows firsthand what a levy failure can mean. He was principal at Mead High School in the early '70s when a levy failure stripped away everything but the barest essentials. "They didn't have athletics, they didn't have art, they didn't have music," Hafner says.

He knows the deep conservatism of Spokane Valley just as keenly. Before getting elected, Hafner helped a slew of economically conservative allies take over the Valley council. Yet as a former assistant superintendent for the Central Valley School District, he knows that passing both a bond and levy is possible. It's just a matter of selling it clearly and convincingly.

"Most people, if they don't know exactly how they feel about it, they're going to vote no," Hafner says. "It comes down to showing exactly what the needs are."

At Central Valley, that's the plan. At one time, administrators would have simply held town halls to get feedback in designing their bond and heard from just a handful of people. This time, however, they used a web tool called Thoughtexchange, gathering more than 4,000 comments from nearly 2,000 participants.

"It's the anti-survey," Small says. "We're asking open-ended questions, and people are telling us what they think."

From these responses, they asked voters to rank their priorities. Three stood out. "Safer schools, deal with the capacity issues, and don't raise our tax rate," Small says. "Those three things are reflected in our bond."

The upcoming expiration of the 1998 bond gives the district the room to do all of that without a tax increase. Central Valley stressed that fact in a four-page mailer stuffed with pie charts, bar graphs and FAQs.

"Our mailer is eye-catching because it's informational. It's factual," Small says. "It tells the story of the need."

Alton's Day-Glo yellow fliers, covered in giant Comic Sans letters, big dollar figures and dramatic claims of new taxes, are eye-catching in a different way. "QUESTION: Where will you get the $$$ to pay for these exorbitant 'NEW' TAXES??" the mailer reads. "From YOUR Grocery Budget??, Clothing Budget??, or Transportation Budget??"

Alton waves aside the fact that taxes wouldn't increase if the measures pass.

"I don't know if it's an increase or not. I just know that it's new," he says. "I know they use semantics, saying, 'Well, it's a replacement tax.'"

Central Valley's bond and levy's maximum annual cost to property owners is just over $1,100 for a $200,000 house. But Alton's flier claims the cost is "$9,976." He's multiplied the figure over the entire life of the 20-year bond and three-year levy — without telling voters they're looking at a multiyear figure.

To Small, the cost is simple — what property owners are paying now — and the need is obvious.

"Some of our schools don't have windows. Chester Elementary School does not have windows to the outside," Small says. "We know that the classroom environment has an impact on learning... Let's renovate that school, bring it to today's standards and expand it, because we know we're growing." ♦

Other Local Measures

Spokane Public Schools

Bond highlights: Would replace Linwood Elementary and Salk Middle School, add classrooms to Lewis and Clark High School, and build a new cafeteria and commons area at North Central High School.

Levy highlights: 22 percent of the operating budget, including electives, school counselors, buses and afterschool sports.

Will it raise taxes? No.

Mead School District

Bond highlights: Upgrade Midway and Shiloh Hills Elementary Schools, replace Northwood Middle School, and build new track-and-field facilities at Mead and Mt. Spokane High Schools.

Levy highlights: About 23 percent of the operating budget, helping to pay for buses, counselors, athletics and activities.

Will it raise taxes? Yes. The bond will add about $156 extra per year on a $200,000 house.

Coeur d'Alene Public Schools (election on March 10)

Levy highlights: Additional levy dollars will help reduce class sizes and buy new textbooks.

Will it raise taxes? Yes, by about $31 extra per year on a $200,000 house.

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...