17 February 2014

Lake Washington School District needs a new approach with voters.

Let me start by saying that I adore the Lake Washington School District (LWSD) and their employees. If you are looking for a top notch education in Washington, you need look no further than our little suburb of Seattle. The quality of the teachers and focus on preparing our students for the "real world" has delivered graduates that lure high tech companies, raise property values and ultimately increase the standard of living for everyone in our community.

In the most recent election our beloved district placed two levies that pay for programs, operations and projects that directly impact the students. Levies require only 50% of the vote but both received well over 60% because the voters could easily see how these were necessary. Success!

Please forgive the district for not dancing in the streets since they are mourning the death of their bond that would have built new schools. For some time now the school board has had a habit of replacing schools after 30-40 years of operation rather than remodeling them. This policy is not without reasonable financial justification. According to the accounting folks in their Redmond offices, it would cost nearly as much to remodel as creating a new building due to additional costs of moving the children to another location while it is happening.

Sadly, many voters believe that the district is stretching the truth, partially because LWSD has not shown the full detail of their math. Anyone who has remodeled their home knows that it is a major annoyance but you can still live in your home while it is happening. Sure, you might need to bring in some portables to do musical rooms while it is happening, but it is still possible to do. The state is also willing to pick up some of the bill with a remodel, but a new building is entirely at the expense of property owners. Further underscoring the robbing of taxpayers perspective are rumors that LWSD has created three of the four most expensive school projects in our state.

The first time LWSD floated this bond four years ago it failed by less than 1% of the vote. This time it may fail by a margin three times larger. We may not like the answer but the voters are speaking loud and clear. As the district continued to build new schools over the past four years the voters kept asking "why couldn't you fix up the old one?"

Before another bond is placed on the ballot the district is going to need to address their concern. The most difficult approach would be to do a better job of selling the need for new schools. They could show the detail of their math, including potential stipends from our government, and explain in each case why a new school is the best approach for the community. That said, I am not convinced they can hit 60% of the vote with that approach. The voters want to see a true remodel and it may be too difficult to sway their logic.

Another road, and the one I believe is more realistic, is to propose a compromise where the district will remodel existing buildings going forward and only build a new school where one does not currently exist. We can do our best to repair Juanita High School and Peter Kirk Elementary while building new schools in the latest Redmond development areas. Yes, maybe the dollars will look similar, but just hearing that we are not tearing down older construction will score significant points. It is an unfortunate compromise since a new Juanita High is easily justified but the fact remains that there are not enough voters to get it passed.

Our school district is, arguably, second to none in our state for producing brilliant free-thinking individuals. There is a reason Microsoft and Google are parked in our cities and it is not because we are frugal when it comes to education. It is certainly reasonable for voters to question how their tax dollars are being spent but it is also reasonable to assume that such a successful school district knows the best choice when it comes to spending our education dollars. Regrettably, 43% of our voters believe they know better and now the school board is forced to find a new approach to change their mind.