Bond defeat scuttles plans for Everett school improvements

EVERETT — Leaders of the Everett public schools are facing a familiar dilemma.

There is a pressing need to add new classrooms, replace aging elementary buildings and bolster campus security, but for the second time in three years voters rejected the means of paying for it.

A $317.4 million bond garnered 58.8% support in the Aug. 4 election, just shy of the 60% approval required for passage. Based on votes counted through Friday, had roughly 515 votes been “yes” rather than “no,” the measure would have made it over the top.

“I understand very clearly what the loss of this bond means for students of our district,” said Caroline Mason, president of the Everett School District board. “I wish we could have had a win for them.”

Superintendent Ian Saltzman expressed similar sentiments.

“I’m disappointed for the children and the community,” he said. “Bonds are for the children and the community. Every child deserves the best facility to learn in and every teacher deserves the best facility to teach in.”

Bond measures provide school districts with money for construction projects and capital improvements. They are paid off over time, usually 20 years, through property taxes.

Funding in the failed measure would have paid for tearing down and replacing three of the district’s oldest elementary schools and for construction of 36 new elementary classrooms. Dollars also had been penciled in for renovations at each of the district’s three high schools, new playground equipment at eight elementaries, and replacement of the synthetic turf and track at Memorial Stadium.

In February 2018, the district’s $330.6 million bond proposal garnered backing from 55.4% of voters. Roughly two-thirds of the money was earmarked to build a new high school.

Following the defeat of that measure, the board enlisted the aid of a citizen committee to craft a new proposal. The result, Proposition 1 on the Aug. 4 ballot, contained no funds for a new high school. Instead, it called for a degree of spending on every campus.

The bond was to be voted on in April’s special election. The campaign to pass it — which spent nearly $100,000 — was well under way when the election got canceled due to the spread of the coronavirus. District leaders opted for the primary election ballot, fully aware it posed a greater challenge because far more people would be participating.

“We felt we had such strong momentum going into April,” Mason recalled. “Clearly I think the pandemic had an impact on our election results. We increased community support pretty significantly from 2018. We didn’t hit the 60%. We did hit 59. I don’t feel like that is a loss.”

Jeff Heckathorn, who opposed the measure, said he was surprised at the close results.

With an ongoing pandemic and recession, it was the wrong time to put it in front of voters, according to Heckathorn, Rodman Reynolds and Janelle Burke. They wrote an opposition statement in the voter’s pamphlet and on a campaign website, Another big shortcoming, they contended, was that the district understated the actual tab by not including financing costs.

As to suggested next steps for the district, Heckathorn pointed to a path laid out on the website.

A vote should have been postponed “until at least November 2021 so that parents, families and taxpayers can deal with the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting economic crisis,” he wrote.

District leaders need to be spending more frugally and do a better job listening to “overly stretched taxpayers.” Also, the district should consider six-year capital levies rather than bonds, Heckathorn wrote on the website.

Election results will be certified Tuesday, and the board will begin discussions sometime after that.

Mason said she would not want to try if there is still an economic downturn and a lot of uncertainty, due to COVID-19.

Another challenge in 2021 will be the validation rate, which is the minimum number of voters who must participate in a district election to make any school bond results valid. That figure, under a state formula, is 40% of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last general election. Next year the rate will be based on the November presidential election in which voter turnout will be very high.

And even if enough voters turn out, a bond measure must still receive support from a supermajority. Educators have lobbied lawmakers to lower the bar to a simple majority, or even 55%, but their efforts have failed. It’s an issue Mason and Saltzman both said they would again raise with area legislators.

And 2022 won’t be easy, either, because the board will be asking voters to renew the district’s four-year enrichment levy to cover the cost of an array of programs not funded by the state. It was formerly known as the maintenance and operations levy.

“There will be another opportunity,” Saltzman said. “I know one day we will pass a bond.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; [email protected] Twitter: @dospueblos.

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