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School bonds appear to pass in Tacoma and Bellevue but not in many other districts

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Tacoma Citizens for Schools
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Lowell Elementary in Tacoma is one of the schools on the list to be replaced or renovated if the district's bond measure passes.

UPDATE, Feb. 12: Adds preliminary results for some school districts, including Tacoma, Bellevue and Burlington-Edison and comments from the state superintendent. 

School districts around the Puget Sound region are taking stock of initial voting results for bond measures and levies. According to the state superintendent's office, almost 90 percent of local capital and operating levies are passing. 

Levies pay for educational programs above and beyond what's provided by the state. Many districts use levy dollars to hire extra nurses, counselors or augment special education services. Some districts also use levies to pay for capital projects. Levies require a simple majority of just over 50 percent to pass. 

Bonds are used to fund construction and renovation of schools and require a supermajority of 60 percent to pass. When a district sells bonds, it takes on debt and pays it back with interest through a property tax over a period of up to 20 years.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal said in a statement that only five bond measures out of 21 appeared to be passing, based on Tuesday's results. Among the bond measures that appear to have garnered enough support are a $675 million bond for the Bellevue school district and a $535 million bond for the Tacoma school district.

Some state lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment last year to lower the threshold for bonds to pass, but the legislation has not moved forward.  

The Burlington-Edison School District in Skagit County appeared to win enough support for its operations levy, but its $89 million bond measure appeared to be failing. The district had also tried unsuccessfully last year to pass a bond measure. 

"Last year we were at 53 or 54 percent, somewhere around there," said Todd Setterlund, an administrator with the Burlington-Edison School District. "Had it been a simple majority, the outcome would have been different."

The district had wanted to use the bond to build a new school for its 7th and 8th graders, who currently attend four different primary schools and have uneven access to electives. It also wanted to renovate its oldest school, West View Elementary, where children have to eat lunch in a portable because it has no cafeteria.

As of Tuesday night, the Burlington-Edison educational programs and operations levy was passing with 55 percent of the vote, and the bond measure was failing with 47 percent of the vote.

ORIGINAL STORY

Many school districts around the Puget Sound region are asking people to vote for operations levies in Tuesday’s special election. Some districts, including Tacoma, are seeking approval for bonds to pay for improving or replacing school buildings.

The Tacoma bond measure would raise $535 million and cost the average homeowner an extra $81 a year.

A big focus would be replacing or renovating eight schools, which have an average age of 69 years. One of the schools, Oakland High School, was built in 1912. The money raised through the bond would also pay for a range of safety upgrades and improved playgrounds and athletic fields.

Willie Stewart worked for decades in Tacoma schools and district administration and is a former school board director. He's co-chairing the committee supporting the bond measure, along with Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and Tom Pierson, president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce.

Stewart said he recently visited Skyline Elementary, which is 58 years old and on the list to be replaced.

“When I walked through the building, I said, 'Young people shouldn’t have to go into this building,’” he said. “It’s old and it needs to be replaced.”

In Skagit County, the Burlington-Edison School District is asking voters to approve an operations levy and a bond measure for improving and building schools.

Todd Setterlund, an administrator for the Burlington-Edison School District, said the district wants to renovate its oldest school, West View Elementary, in part because it lacks a cafeteria.

“Students have to leave the main building and walk under this carport thing into a portable, and that’s where they eat lunch,” he said. “We don’t have facilities in there, so we have to bring in the food. It’s carted in. Because of the size of the portable, those students eat in four shifts.”

The Burlington-Edison School District also wants to build a new middle school for 7th and 8th graders. Right now, those students attend schools that serve kindergarten through eighth grade, and Setterlund said that has resulted in inequities in the electives that students have the opportunity to take. Putting the students in one middle school would give them all equal access to a larger variety of classes.

The bond measure would raise $89 million. Last year, the district asked voters to approve a somewhat bigger bond measure but failed to get at least 60 percent of the vote as required.

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.