Students, parents and educators in Tacoma and 10 other Pierce County school districts have good reason to give each other high-fives after this week’s election. Their peers in two local districts are more likely to be wringing their hands in defeat and uncertainty.
Tough questions abound in Bethel and Yelm. Both fell well short of the support they needed from voters Tuesday to authorize bonds to rebuild or replace several subpar school buildings. One wonders what it will take to persuade taxpayers in those sprawling rural-suburban districts to step up for children.
Overall, however, South Sound school boosters should celebrate. Levy results indicate most voters weren’t deterred by confusion over a major state-local property tax swap adopted by the 2017 Legislature, nor by well-founded fear of higher tax bills in 2018.
Washington’s Constitution holds that the “paramount duty” of state policymakers is to fund a basic education for all kids. It’s refreshing every time local voters embrace their own duty: to invest in young people by going beyond the basics.
While Tuesday’s turnout was low, those who did cast ballots gave emphatic backing — more than 60-percent yes votes, in most districts — to a passel of school technology and operating levy renewals. The success spanned Tacoma, Puyallup, University Place, Sumner, Franklin Pierce, Fife, Orting, Eatonville, Steilacoom, White River and Dieringer.
Fife also managed to pass a $176 million school bond package.
Perhaps there’s a lesson here: School leaders who go out of their way to practice cautious financial stewardship will be rewarded. Consider Puyallup, which won 69 percent support for its levy renewal, highest in the county. It found a creative way to soften the 2018 property tax blow by transferring $10 million to a debt-service fund.
“We’re one of two districts in the state of Washington who are doing that,” Puyallup Schools spokesman Brian Fox told Puyallup Herald reporter Allison Needles. “The board said, ‘what can we do to reduce taxes?’”
Down the road in the Spanaway-based Bethel district, officials are coping with a boom of new students squeezed into deteriorating, overcrowded schools and portables. But asking for a $443 million bond — a request 87 percent more expensive than the package voters rejected twice in 2016 — was an impossibly big pill to swallow all at once.
State legislators this year are considering lowering the 60-percent-yes requirement for school bond authorization to a more reasonable 55 percent. But even if that threshold were in place right now, Bethel would be flirting with failure.
Adding insult to injury, Bethel leaders have surely noticed that their two levy renewals, while likely to pass, received tepid voter support compared to every other Pierce County school district.
Bethel must figure out how to cultivate greater community trust, streamline the bond project list or a combination of both. It can be done, even in a district with great needs and low incomes. Tacoma and Franklin Pierce chalked up successful bond campaigns in recent years, and both have higher student poverty rates than Bethel.
Meanwhile, Pierce County property tax bills arrive this week, and Assessor-Treasurer Mike Lonergan warns people should sit down to read them.
Will the little mailer cards leave some wide-eyed taxpayers reeling with buyer’s remorse? Will late-to-the-party school districts — such as Peninsula and its upcoming $220 million school bond request — find themselves at a disadvantage?
We hope not, but stay tuned. The next special election is less than 10 weeks away.