Spending transparency hot topic at Yelm district forums

School levy vote coming up on April 23


Yelm Community Schools Superintendent Chris Woods has described the failed first attempt at replacing the educational programs and operations (EP&O) levy a “blessing” since the measure was rejected in the Feb. 13 special election.

This is because, he said, the district took a good look at why voters chose not to approve the levy, or why they didn’t vote. YCS offered five public forums last week to inform voters about the levy, to answer questions from the community and to build trust by being transparent, Woods said.

One of the primary concerns from voters has been about how the district spends taxpayer money. The levy, which would begin in 2025 if approved, makes up 13% of the district’s total budget, and 47% of the levy funds benefit teaching and learning, primarily staffing. About 18% pays for arts and electives, 13% goes toward health and safety, 11% benefits athletics and activities and another 11% funds operations and technology. 

Woods also presented a projection of which programs, staff and services may be impacted if the levy fails at its rate of $2.25 per $1,000 of assessed property value, down from the originally proposed $2.50. Of the approximately $15 million in projected cuts, more than $5 million in instructional student programs and supports would be reduced, as well as $2.3 million in arts, career and technical education, leadership, world language and elective programs. Other cuts include $2.3 million in staffing, which would increase class sizes, and $1.7 million in extracurricular activities, athletics and field trips, among other reductions. The district would also lose nearly $2 million in local effort assistance (LEA) funding that it receives when a levy is passed.

Woods said he would not try to sway voters’ opinions on whether the levy dollars are valuable during the forums, but rather he aimed to give them a more-informed choice.

“We heard pretty loud and clear in this community that, number one, people wanted more information about why this matters, and so we wanted to be open and share that information,” he said. “People told us loud and clear that we need to do a better job of building trust with our community, and then the last piece is transparency. My goal in this was to provide factual information, help people understand that I am here and committed to helping our district build trust with our families, and to be transparent.”

Woods aimed to respond to a number of concerns shared by voters on social media regarding the levy, including the salaries of the YCS administration, particularly his own. He explained how superintendent salaries work and that he makes $213,572, less than each of the superintendents in North Thurston, Olympia and Tumwater school districts.

He also clarified concerns about the district’s transportation system, which has had route cancellations and delays throughout the school year due to a driver shortage. Woods explained that transportation is funded by the state and not by the levy, with the exception of transportation for athletics, activities and field trips.

“The shortage in Yelm, I believe, was attributed to a work environment that was not very positive. We were seeing people leaving and going to other districts because it was not an environment [where] people felt like they were valued and welcomed,” Woods told the crowd at Lackamas Elementary School on April 11. “We made a change in leadership this fall, and I can tell you today that we’ve made significant improvements.”

Voters in the crowd also expressed concerns about the schools in YCS underperforming, citing the Thurston Regional Planning Council’s 2023 graduation rates that show YCS as having the lowest rate among districts in Thurston County.

“We serve a challenging clientele. However, that’s not an excuse for not doing well because we’ve seen some tremendous increases with our test scores that just came out. We have pockets in our district where we do very well, and it’s not because those kids are better. It’s not because our staff is better,” Woods responded. “It’s because we’re doing some really strong instruction and some great intervention. In my opinion, we need to replicate that in other buildings.”

Woods also cited “tremendous challenges” with attendance in the district, primarily at the secondary level, due to what he called a lack of accountability.

“We don’t have nearly the amount of support as we once did to hold students and families accountable. We work with families, we bring them in, we bring students in, and we try to find ways or things that are a trigger to bring them in,” he said to the Lackamas crowd. “My hook back in high school was athletics. I graduated high school with a 2.5 GPA, and there was a question as to whether or not I would even graduate. We need to find that hook for our kids.”

Woods said after the final forum that he believes YCS can be the best school district in the state and has the people to do so. He added that nothing presented to him by the community members in attendance surprised him, and he appreciated people coming to start a conversation, even if they remained a “no” voter.

“You’re never going to win an argument on social media. Social media is undefeated. But if we can get people willing to have a conversation, even if we disagree at the end of it, that’s OK,” Woods said. “The reason I wanted to come to Yelm as the superintendent is because of the people here. People in Yelm, regardless of how they vote on the levy, are passionate about our community. It’s really encouraging to me that people invest in our kids.”

To learn more about the replacement levy, and to watch Woods’ full forum at Lackamas, visit https://www.ycs.wednet.edu/levy2024.