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Regional voters support tax measures for school districts in early election returns

Ashley Gross
Seattle's Rainier Beach High School is one of eight schools slated for replacement or modernization with the capital levy that voters appear to have passed.

The Seattle school district appears to have won enough support from voters for both of its local tax measures in yesterday’s election. The first vote count showed about two-thirds of voters approving the capital levy and the operations levy.

The district said it will use operations levy dollars to fill gaps not fully funded by the state. In 2017, state lawmakers overhauled the education funding system to satisfy the long-running McCleary lawsuit.

Greg Wong has three kids in the school system and helped with the levy campaign. He said the state’s new plan doesn’t go far enough.

“What the state provides even after McCleary is not what any of us would consider adequate for fully funded quality education for our kids,” Wong said.

For example, Seattle Public Schools said the state provides nine nurses for the district’s 53,000 students. The school district employs 63 nurses and uses local levy dollars to fill that gap. And the district said it also needs levy dollars to pay for special education services, because the state only provides about half of what’s needed to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Seattle’s capital levy will pay for the replacement or modernization of eight schools, including Rainier Beach High School. Students and community members have been advocating for years for Rainier Beach to be modernized.

School Board Director Rick Burke said the school board also tried to make sure that more schools receive capital investments beyond the eight slated for major projects. For example, he said some of the levy dollars will go toward playground improvements.

“Our communities have been saying, 'Hey, we’ve got some schools that have really great play spaces for kids, and then we’ve got others that don’t have them, don’t have PTA funding or infrastructure to build them,’” Burke said. “And it’s another one of those equity components that we were really trying to target.”

Elsewhere in the Puget Sound region, some districts that have had difficulty passing bond measures in the past appear to have won support, too.

The first tally of ballots showed almost 67 percent of voters supporting the Peninsula School District’s bond measure. Last year, the district failed to get enough votes.

In suburban Pierce County, the Bethel School District appeared to be winning enough support for a $443 million bond measure. That comes after four failed attempts since 2016.

“Since the last school opened up in 2009, we’ve grown by over 2,200 kids,” said Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel. “We’ve got another 3,000 coming in the next 10 years and we are just out of space.”

High school students helped get out the vote and even made a documentary about leaks in the ceiling and severe overcrowding at Bethel High School. Some of them also traveled to Olympia to testify in a legislative hearing.

The students joined Seigel and other school officials in urging state lawmakers to lower the threshold that school districts have to clear to pass a construction bond measure. Right now, districts have to receive at least 60 percent of votes. They said it should be lowered to a simple majority.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.