Education

School bonds are making a comeback on February’s election ballot. Is it too soon?

Bethel Schools feeling cramped as population grows, funding bonds fail.

Prior to the Bethel School District passing its first construction bond in 13 years, a tour was led to demonstrate need on Jan. 15, 2019. On Tuesday, Republican leaders voted to maintain the 60 percent majority required to approve school bonds.
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Prior to the Bethel School District passing its first construction bond in 13 years, a tour was led to demonstrate need on Jan. 15, 2019. On Tuesday, Republican leaders voted to maintain the 60 percent majority required to approve school bonds.

Voters could experience déjà vu when they open their ballots for the February special election, which are scheduled to be mailed Friday.

On the ballot are school bond measures that might sound familiar.

Bethel, Peninsula and Yelm school districts are running bonds after attempts were made to pass similar measures in 2018. After they failed, it was back to the drawing board to determine what comes next — or how soon they should make their return in an upcoming election.

District officials are choosing sooner rather than later, stressing overcrowding and the need for critical building repairs.

“The bottom line is the problem is only going to get worse, so it is better to tackle the solution now rather than wait for a more costly solution in the future,” Bethel School District Superintendent Tom Seigel wrote to The News Tribune in an email.

Quick bond turnaround can have drawbacks. In some cases, returning a failed bond measure to the public within the same year can reduce the confidence voters have in their school districts, making it more difficult to pass bonds later on.

“There’s a stark need for these resources, so it’s really hard to (tell districts), ‘Don’t (put it on the ballot),’” said Olympia political consultant Alex Hays. “But if they do, it has an opportunity cost, and that’s declining public trust in the school district.”

As construction costs and enrollment climb, and staff lounges are transformed into makeshift classrooms, it’s a risk district officials say they’re not just willing, but obligated, to take. For them, the issue is clear: There’s no time to wait.

Will new changes help?

After a bond fails, districts can choose to take the bond back to voters as-is or make changes.

Making changes usually is the best way to go to combat voter resentment, Seattle-based political consultant Ben Anderstone said.

“If you can show that you heard the voters and responded, sometimes you can gain several percentage points within a few months,” said Anderstone.

For some districts, a few more “yes” votes are all that’s needed to reach the required 60 percent supermajority to pass a bond. Bethel’s November bond failed at 59.22 percent. Peninsula’s April bond failed at 58.96 percent. Yelm’s also failed close to the mark at 58.97 percent with voters from both Pierce and Thurston County in February 2018.

In the upcoming election, all three districts have made changes to their bond proposals.

Bethel’s latest $443 million proposal changes the bond’s language to identify the creation of a new location for Bethel High School and includes a $35 million project to construct a new wing at Graham Kapowsin High School. To cover the cost of the added project, the district reduced the cost of the Bethel High School project and slated extra funds coming from the state and the School Construction Assistance Program.

Yelm’s bond narrows its focus to replacing Yelm Middle School and Southworth Elementary School, in addition to various security improvements. The bond increased from $76 million in February 2018 to $98 million this year due to rapidly rising construction costs.

“We are telling voters it will never get less expensive — it will only get more expensive,” Yelm Superintendent Brian Wharton said.

Peninsula decreased its bond from $220 million to $198 million. Instead of including repairs district-wide, the bond outlines specific needs at the elementary schools, including replacement of the school’s oldest elementary schools, Artondale and Evergreen.

Will the changes make a difference in votes?

That depends on the districts’ ability to effectively communicate them to the public, said political consultant Crystal Fincher. Districts could be digging themselves into financial holes by bouncing back too soon, putting a strain on donors and resources, Fincher said.

“What they’re doing is jeopardizing the campaign to be effective if they can’t raise the resources,” she said. “The timing (of the bonds) doesn’t concern me as much as what they’re doing in the campaign.”

School bond fatigue?

A challenge districts face is a growing opposition to school bonds, Hays said.

“School boards tend to overreach — they shoot for the moon and don’t get there,” he said.

Middle-aged voters without school-aged children are one of the most tax-hostile group, added Anderstone.

Fox Island resident Dan White represents a different group of voters. He has two children in the Peninsula School District and is the co-founder of the Responsible Taxation of Citizens (RTC).

RTC is the official opposition group listed on the ballot for the Peninsula bond. There are no “against” statements for Yelm and Bethel in the election pamphlets.

“The taxpayers don’t have an institution to fight for them,” White told The News Tribune last month. “So we’re raising awareness. We want our schools fixed just as bad as they do. It’s that we have a different way to get there that has the taxpayers’ interest.”

RTC leaders are proposing a $102 million capital levy plan they say is debt-free in six years versus the district’s 20-year bond and would save taxpayers millions in the long run. The group formed last year and made its proposal to district leaders but said there’s been no willingness from the district to negotiate.

The leaders of Stand Up for Peninsula Schools, the group in support of the bond, said that’s because the RTC plan “ignores basic economic realities.”

“Levy funds are received as taxes are paid, taking years to save enough to even start building,” said Peter Nash, a member of Stand Up for Peninsula Schools.

Nash is an 11-year Gig Harbor resident with two young children.

“Compounding the problem, every year buildings get more and more expensive while levy revenue remains flat,” he said.

Discovery Elementary in Gig Harbor has jumped from 430 students to 620 in the past two years. Overcrowding in the school has forced some creative solutions including using closet space for teaching and getting rid of most public space.

What if the bonds fail?

If the February bonds fail, districts have made it clear that they’ll have no choice but to consider less desirable methods of dealing with overcrowding, such as moving to year-round school, using schools on double shifts or moving fifth graders to middle schools.

It’s not unheard of for failed February bond measures to appear only months later in the April special election. State law allows a measure to be put before the voters a maximum of twice in one year, Seigel said.

Peninsula School District Superintendent Art Jarvis mentioned running an April election “if absolutely necessary” in December, but there’s been no proposal yet.

“The obvious effort is to get the bond approved and move forward quickly,” Jarvis said. “If it should fail, all of the needs will still be present, and the board will face the unpleasant task of answering the question, ‘What’s next?’”

Running identical bond measures in April after failing in February elections is usually not a good idea, Anderstone said.

“It’s not a different electorate, and that’s not enough time to address issues in the campaign or educate voters,” he said. “This basically never works. I think it’s based on the belief that a campaign can just get ‘unlucky’ based on who turns out. That’s just not how it works when there are thousands upon thousands of voters.”

It could be in the best interest of the districts to step back before pushing forward, according to some political consultants. For district officials, waiting means lost time, and time is everything.

“Yes, unfortunately, all of the choices are bad if the bond fails,” Jarvis said. “The costs will be higher to delay the work; the election costs will be repeated; none of the needs get attended; nobody else will come forth to solve any capital problems; and, the situation will get worse.”

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