Vashon voters defeat school bond measure
By LESLIE BROWN
Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Editor
March 17, 2009 · 12:49 PM
It’s not often that Vashon voters say no to a school bond measure.
The last time, in fact, was 29 years ago.
But as Vashon High School teacher Mike Zecher pointed out, “This is a unique time in history.”
Islanders, facing escalating property values and what some are calling the worst recession since the Great Depression, overwhelmingly defeated a $75.5 million bond measure that backers said was desperately needed to rebuild a decrepit and inefficient high school.
By Friday, with all but a handful of the votes counted from the March 10 election, 51 percent had rejected the proposal, while 49 percent had endorsed it. The bond measure required a 60 percent super-majority to pass.
The defeat was a bitter disappointment to the measure’s backers, some of who had poured thousands of hours into a multi-year effort to craft a plan for a new campus and put it before the voters. Both Bob Hennessey and John “Oz” Osborne, the two longest-serving members of the school board, said they initially didn’t even want to talk about the measure’s defeat and opted to wait a couple of days before making their first public comments. Both said, only half-jokingly, it seemed, that they were going through the five stages of grief.
“It did not feel very good,” Hennessey said of the defeat.
Within days of the election, however, the five-member board began discussing next steps. At a meeting Thursday night, the board reviewed different options and decided to pursue a schedule that would enable the district to bring another bond measure — or possibly a bond levy — to voters next February.
“For a lot of reasons, trying to shoot for that February date makes sense,” Eric Gill, capital projects manager, told the board. “The longer we delay, the more risk we have that some of these things will fail.”
The board has also decided to hold a public meeting on Monday, March 23, where it hopes to hear from voters who opposed the measure. The gathering is the first of several that board members plan to host as they begin the work of crafting a new measure to bring to voters.
“We don’t have a plan right now. But we do know we have to talk to as many people as possible who voted no, find out why they voted no and learn from it,” Hennessey said.
Terry Lindquist, the district’s superintendent, said he, too, plans to talk to a range of community leaders and civic groups.
“I’m going to try to meet with a series of community leaders and ask, ‘What is the lesson learned and what are your recommendations?’ I think we need to be really thoughtful,” he said.
Noting that he steps down as interim superintendent in June, Lindquist added, “I might be a safe person to talk to.”
Vashon’s was not the only bond measure to suffer defeat. Across the state, from the Kennewick School District in Eastern Washington to the Burlington-Edison School District in Skagit County, several bond measures failed in elections March 10. According to election results, 14 bond measures went before voters — with half of them failing.
And those that won were, in some instances, repeat efforts. The Snoqualmie Valley School District’s $27.5 million bond measure — the only one of three that passed in King County — was the district’s fourth attempt. What’s more, it was dramatically scaled down; the measure it unsuccessfully put forward a year ago sought a $190 million bond.
On Vashon, most of the post-election analysis focused on the measure’s costs, a high price tag, some suggested, at a time when the economy continues to unravel.
“It was just too much,” said Hilary Emmer, a civic activist on Vashon who emerged as the measure’s most vocal opponent.
“I think what it did is send a message to the school board that they were really out of touch with the economic hardships of the times,” she said of the measure’s failure. “While they wanted everything and the best for the school, it wouldn’t have been the best for the community. They asked for too much at the wrong time.”
Board member Laura Wishik, who endorsed the measure when it came before the board but with obvious misgivings, agreed.
“I felt from the beginning — and I was pretty clear about this — that the size of the package ... was too big. And I think, given what happened to the economy, that just amplified the difficulty,” she said. “Given those two things, we were set up for failure.”
Others agreed, noting that it would be an oversimplification to blame the measure’s defeat solely on the country’s tough economic times.
“I want to rationalize the whole thing and say it was just the economy, but I don’t think that would be right,” Lindquist said. “There was something about the package that wasn’t quite right for the community, and we’ve got to figure out what it is.”
In conversations he’s already held with a number of prominent people who opposed the measure, Hennessey said he’s heard several reasons for “no” votes, including unhappiness with the district’s record of maintenance of its buildings and what he called “a distrust of the district’s ability to deliver on what it says it will do.”
Osborne, too, has heard people go beyond the issue of costs, including a sentiment that he called the “when-I-was-your-age argument” — the concept that it’s character-building to attend a school that doesn’t have it all. “There were a lot of issues that were bubbling around,” Osborne added.
May Gerstle, an active member of the Vashon chapter of the League of Women Voters, said she thinks it’s extremely important that the board listen carefully to those who opposed the measure and come back to the community with a scaled-back proposal. She’s talked to people who described their decision to oppose the measure as “one of the most painful” votes they’d ever made, adding that Islanders want to support Vashon’s public schools.
“I think that if the board comes back with a prioritized list of desperate needs, this community will support that,” Gerstle said.
But it’s also important that people talk to the board about their concerns, she added. In the weeks leading up to the March 10 vote, few would speak publicly about their opposition, she noted.
“People were afraid to speak out,” Gerstle said. “I think a lot of people will talk now.”
Board seeks input
The school board will open the floor to public comments about the recently rejected bond measure at a special meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 23. The meeting will be held at McMurray Middle School.
Those who cannot attend the meeting can e-mail comments to the school board at firstname.lastname@example.org.Contact Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Editor Leslie Brown at email@example.com or 1-206-463-9195.