When the coronavirus forced the closure of Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) and students had to engage at home in remote learning, computer equipment was made available to them thanks to local voters. It was they who approved the district’s first Technology Improvements and Upgrades levy in 2014, and no one could have known how that support would later be critical in continuing education through the pandemic.
Now it’s time for voters to keep giving that help by voting yes on renewing the Technology Improvements and Upgrades levy and the district’s Educational Programs and Operations levy, both of which will be on the Feb. 8, 2022, special election ballot. Both are four-year replacements of expiring levies to fund educational progress, basic day-to-day operations, maintenance, and technology in every neighborhood school.
“Fortunately, we had the technology levy so when the pandemic hit, we took the money voters were giving us for that levy and re-budgeted it so we could give a laptop to every student,” said TPS Executive Director of Communications Dan Voelpel. “Voters could see the value in us bringing more computers and other technology into the schools. They renewed (the levy) in 2018 and now we’re going back this year for another four-year renewal.”
Titled “Prop. 2” on the ballot, the Technology Improvements and Upgrades levy will expand technology access and laptops for every K-12 student and staff member to use at school and at home, as well as provide for staff training, up-to-date computer software, and online learning tools for teachers and students. Prop. 1 will also increase computer safety, security and privacy protection for all students and staff, and keep students on track for high school graduation through online systems for students, teachers, and parents to monitor academic progress, attendance, homework, and credits.
“Prop. 1,” the Educational Programs and Operations levy, would support teachers, books and basics. The district has about 500 total staff positions that are funded by this levy, including teachers, nurses, counselors, librarians, paraeducators, special needs staff and others. It would fund up-to-date textbooks and instructional materials for math and reading, special needs programs and improved accessibility for students and staff with disabilities, preschool and after-school programs, programs for high-achieving students and college entrance exams for all students, and arts, music, athletics, extracurricular activities and career and technical education.
Prop. 1 supports staff like Lincoln High School counselor Jake Clausen.
Prop. 1 supports health, safety and security in the district as well with upgrades to plumbing, heating and ventilation systems to maintain clean air and safe water; upgrades to aging roofs and earthquake safety; and improvements to school safety and security, fire alarm systems and 911 communications.
Both propositions do not mean a tax rate increase. If both pass, the average four-year tax rate for Tacoma schools is projected to decrease due to rising property values (from $2.72 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $2.63 per $1,000 of assessed property value). The cost to the average Tacoma homeowner is projected to be about $13 more per month ($9.43 per month more for Prop. 1 and $3.63 per month more for Prop. 2).
As learning continued during the pandemic, having a computer at home quickly became an important part of Tacoma students’ education.
“We found that it has been so valuable that we have to continue it and make sure students have up to date devices that they can use for their schoolwork,” Voelpel said. “Most districts that went that route are doing the same thing, so we want to make sure we continue to be innovative and teach children in the way that works best for them.”
Many TPS families found that online learning engages their student better than the traditional classroom, which led the district to launch Tacoma Online last year. This offers students a personalized learning experience anytime and anywhere with a TPS teacher assigned for all the students’ courses. It’s a go at your own pace program so students that like to work ahead and learn more can have that opportunity, and it works well for students who might be behind and need to take a little bit longer with their lessons. The whole program – the teachers that support it, the computers, and the curriculum – are all funded by the technology levy.
“It’s proven to be a really valuable tool for a lot of our families,” Voelpel said. “We want to continue that innovative option because sometimes it’s easier to learn things online than it is to go into a physical classroom. It’s just different learning styles.”
Just like practically every other workplace and industry around the country, schools are facing serious staff shortages. It’s so bad in our state that Seattle, Bellevue, and Kent school districts had to cancel classes on Fri., Nov. 12. It hasn’t gotten to that point in Tacoma, but the district is short staffed in a wide variety of areas such that it is ramping up its hiring efforts to fill important positions by offering $250-$5,000 hiring bonuses.
The most pressing need is for substitute teachers.
“We call them ‘emergency subs’ – someone who might not have a teaching certificate but they have at least an AA degree and some work experience, and they can become emergency substitutes. That’s a big deal for us right now,” Voelpel said.
He explained that a lot of substitutes are retired teachers who decided that they’d like to pick up some shifts and make some extra money. At the same time, they’re older and have some trepidation about coming back into a classroom and be at risk of catching COVID. The district also had a slightly higher number of retirements at the end of last schoolyear than it typically would see.
Other areas of need are bus drivers, nurses and LPNs, nutrition services (no high school diploma or GED required), and more. Find details at tinyurl.com/bwp3wd4h.
Story by Matt Nagle: [email protected]