Oped: Change Needed to [Finally] Pass Snoqualmie Valley School Bond

It’s a head scratcher. Eleven years and only one passed capital construction bond in one of the state’s fastest growing school districts.

Five failed bonds ranging from $50 million to $200 million have left SVSD leaders wondering what it will take to pass a bond and convince taxpayers to fund needed school space and improve aging facilities.

With with just one school district survey, EMC Research may have answered that question and pinpointed why Snoqualmie Valley school bonds repeatedly fail.

It might be that past school bond campaigns spent too much time “preaching to the choir” and too much energy on already supportive voters. Not enough attention was paid to voters with concerns, including those not connected to the district through their own children.

EMC Research survey results showed that respondents under the age of 50 (especially with kids in the district) overwhelmingly support proposed school bond options and their associated costs – to the tune of 80%. But support drops dramatically with respondents over the age of 50, especially those without kids in the district, to about 45%.

In part, this demographic’s disconnect is holding SVSD bonds right on the cusp of passing, time after time, no matter the bond’s price tag or components.

It’s time to stop depending on yes voters to outnumber a less supportive demographic. It’s time to answer tough questions and create a community culture connected to schools.

To accomplish this requires a district-level strategy change. During past school bond failures, the major focus was on voters with kids – to simply get more of this demographic out to vote and outnumber and conquer no voters.

During the failed 2011 bond, the strategy took a new direction to produce victory, telling voters a school would close without enough yes votes. The problem is, strongly opposed voters often don’t appreciate perceived threats and speak out, recruiting ‘undecideds’ to their side.

It’s time for a shift because something isn’t working and survey results show a community disconnect exists. It’s time to create a plan to solve the problem; one that starts now – not 90 days before an election.

It’s time to take a fresh approach; knock on more doors of residents without school aged kids; do more bond presentations outside school buildings and PTA meetings; bring school, civic and business leaders into the mix; not be afraid to solicit advice from different community groups; let the schools foundation do more than raise money.

It’s time to address concerns of not-so-supportive voters and explain how schools and education trickle everywhere, impacting everything in this community; create a connection to schools for all demographics of the Snoqualmie Valley.

Let’s answer the questions of voters leaning toward no who are fearful of big tax increases; explain the return on investment; show how strong schools and enough facility space benefit the whole community – not just families with children.

If schools are reflective of a whole community, then everyone needs to be included. We can’t continue to ignore those who might vote no. It’s been tried and hasn’t worked.

The district created a new longterm bond plan to address district-wide facility and educational needs. Now it’s time to bring all voices at the table and connect that plan to the WHOLE  community  – for the future of the entire Snoqualmie Valley.

Cover of the 2004/05 SVSD School calendar. Photo was taken during the groundbreaking ceremony for Cascade View ES in June 2004. The school was built by the last SVSD construction bond to pass, 10 years ago.. In the bottom right hand corner are my then 2 and 5 year old children.
Cover of the 2004/05 SVSD School calendar. Photo taken during groundbreaking of Cascade View ES in June 2004. CVES was built by the last SVSD construction bond to pass, 11 years ago. In the bottom corner are my then 2 and 5 year old children who are now 7th and 10th graders.

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  • If you don’t have kids, one compelling reason to vote for better schools is to keep great people from leaving the community in search of better schools. How many have left in search of a better education for their kids? Your vote isn’t just about the kids who are in school right now, it’s about their entire family and wanting to live in an interesting and vibrant place, whether you have children or not.

  • I am one of those in the 50+ yo category. Although I am an avid education improvement advocate, because I am convinced that a better education for our public ultimately results in a better society, and am therefore personally more inclined to vote for school construction bonds, I can share some of the primary reasons why so many other 50+ers I have spoken to are not so ready to approve school bonds…

    Over time as a typical voter grows older, one becomes more knowledgeable about politics and the operations of public agencies & government. As a result of the accumulation of that knowledge, many people grow more skeptical of those orgs, inc the school district. For example, in our school district we have witnessed the approval of a school construction bond to build a “badly needed” third middle school that opened in 2008, yet just a few years later the school district closed down one of the three middle schools (SMS), resulting in an even worse jump in crowding than before upon return to just two middle schools. Does that make sense? That district decision was made BEFORE voters were given a chance to approve a replacement middle school, which in part is the reason why that subsequent bond proposal failed. This is a fact that has not been forgotten by so many voters living here at the time, regardless of whether they have kids or not in the system, and feeds this perception that the school district is not properly handling tax monies and making sound decisions regarding bond proposals. No action has been taken yet to address this voter concern, and it needs to be met head-on as soon as possible in order to restore a good portion of our voter confidence that the district is handling matters properly. By the way, that likely means reverting the freshman-only campus back to the third middle school in the short term.

    Others are concerned that there is an inordinate focus on competitive sports related spending of tax monies, including those associated with construction bonds. The view by many of our 50+ (and other ages) voters is that the primary mission of a school district is academic instruction of students, and that there are continuing improvements still needed for that mission…and that the priority of extracurricular sports comes well after under-funded academic education resources. Yet, all new school construction bond proposals (even the currently proposed new elementary school by the way) includes a sizable chunk of money for competitive sports fields that drives the costs up even more. By the way, there are other school districts (eg, Issaquah SD) that eliminated all sports fields from bond proposals to get them approved by voters (private donors stepped in to fill that gap afterward in many instances, such as Skyline HS in Issaquah). One way for SVSD to address this concern of 50+ voters is to eliminate all competitive sports fields from new school construction bonds, which of course also significantly lowers the cost of bonds.

    Older voters have realized that school buildings don’t teach kids….teachers do. Class sizes (student-to-teacher ratios) have been continually growing in our district, impeding academic progress. Building more classrooms does not fix that problem. The primary reason why some parents leave our communities to allow for their children to attend schools elsewhere has little to do with the buildings or how new they look, or even about perception of how their property values are affected…it’s about better academic education in a student-safe environment to prepare their kids for future success. This is likely one of the primary reasons why the EMC survey found that 66% of respondents feel that portable classrooms are adequate for our schools.

    Another concern is total cost of a particular bond proposal measure showing up on the ballot. The $225M “Option A” bond currently being considered equates out to four times the amount of tax burden per voter as compared to the bond recently approved by the Lake Washington SD voters. Even when cutting that almost in half to the $130M idea in the EMC survey, there wasn’t a significant difference in respondent attitude, thus the threshold of approval jump is somewhere way less than that. One of the EMC survey indicators is that the bond idea approval dropped a full 10% AFTER the respondent learning of its cost. I agree with Danna in the jist of her article here than continual voter denial of bond proposals is a bad thing, insofar as it continues to feed this negative momentum over time. What is needed is another “win” in bond passages, and one way to do that is to quickly place ONLY the elementary school proposal on the ballot (sans sports field and preschool facility costs), which everyone recognizes as the most badly needed increment in classrooms for our district by far. Then, after addressing voter concerns about our middle school crowding situation as fully as is possible, follow that later with a middle school bond, or high school related bond. I believe that if done properly, we’ll still see all of our critical school building needs met if spread over time and sufficient voter education takes place.

    Finally, older voters are the ones that have more high school students in the SVSD system (as opposed to preschool, elementary or middle school). Even after their kids have graduated, they still know and occasionally speak with Mt Si HS teachers. These voters are more likely to have become aware of the opposition that MSHS teacher staff has to the current bond proposal. If you don’t have widespread support among teachers, how can you reasonably expect enough voting parents to support a bond measure? Teacher concerns must be addressed in these bonds, as we have closer knit communities than most of our sister eastside districts (ie, “word gets around”).

  • How much did the devlopment of Snoqualmie Ridge pay in impact fees? My understanding that many if not all fees were waived by the District. Devlopers put money in their pockets and we are left footing a large portion of the bill by paying more for school bonds. What is each new house on the Ridge paying right now in impact fees? The City did not collect fees for a couple of years just recentally. I realize that these fees would not pay for an entire school but that is money that was not collected. I think many people do not realixe this has occured. If I am wrong please feel free to show the documentation showing these fees where collected from each and every house on the Ridge. I agree with Stephen too. Why is so much money being spent on sports which few a small percentage parcipitate in? I think there is a lot of bitterness in the way the District has wasted funds in the past. An elevated football field comes to mind. Building a new middle school then closing another. While we have a new board the damage has bbeen done and I’m not convinced that the Admistration will change from the past.

    1. Currently, each new single family home on Snoqualmie Ridge pays about $8,500 in impact fees. I believe prior to 2010 the fee was generally around $3,000 to $4,000 per home – and it’s a complicated formula that sets the fee – handed down by King County. There was one year when no impact fee was set by SVSD – believe 2009 – so there was nothing for the city to collect. Then around 2010 when the fee nearly tripled and builders were questioning the huge increase, some legal idemnification agreement had to be settled before the City of Snoqualmie would collect the full impact fee. As they only collect fee and do not set it, they said they did not want to be at risk of any potential lawsuit from builders over the fee. Both Snoqualmie and North Bend ended up requesting this idemnification from SVSD. Snoqualmie did collect impact fees during this period, but only around $3,000, not the $8000 new impact fee requested by SVSD. So the only time a fee was not collected was I believe in 2009 and that was bc one was not assessed by SVSD administrators. If you need documentation I would encourage you to contact the city of Snoqualmie clerk. Snoqualmie Ridge developers also gave SVSD about 80 acres of land on which to build future schools in the original mitigation agreement (late 1990’s) when Snoqualmie Ridge was developed. I can’t begin to guess how many millions of dollars the land is worth today.

  • Appreciate your input Stephen. Question, what specifically does the teaching staff not like about the current bond proposal? I’ve heard over and over that staff is ‘not on board’. Do you know the specifics?
    I could not agree more with your comment about the voting public losing faith with the District. I was very offended when they made the FC about ‘saving a high-risk group’, completely dismissing the real reason for the FC: capacity. The voting public can’t keep up.
    I disagree about ‘building’ a 3rd middle school–been there done that with TFMS. I’d much rather we convert SMS back to the middle school it should be and put all other resources into Mount Si. The tax payers have already paid for that 3rd middle school once before, and as you say, it was closed down by the District.

  • I’ve attended several of the school board meetings over past years where this subject of impact fee collections took place. The school district has never “waved” impact fees, to the contrary they’ve wished to see more of them for the capital construction fund. What happened is that the City of Snoqualmie refused to collect the proper legal amount of such fees from developers & home buyers for several years, particularly during the peak of construction on the Ridge (it is the responsibility of the Cities to collect impact fees from developers/buyers, and then disburse them to SVSD). However, it’s still unclear to me why SVSD did not take legal or other action to collect on their impact fees from the City. City of North Bend, on the other hand, complied with the regularly increased impact fees on new home construction all this time. I have never heard/seen a definitive reason why Snoqualmie refused to collect those fees; however, a likely reason was fear of reducing home development & sales and a desire to transfer their portion of school construction costs to the school district instead. This is a good question for Carolyn Simpson, one of our school board directors, since she has been in close touch with relevant City of Snoqualmie politicians & staff over the years.

    Regardless, new home construction impact fees contribute an unusually small portion of new school construction/rennovation/portables, as they are severely limited by WA state law. Our state representatives & senators need to change that in legislation.

    1. Stephen,

      I would encourage you to read my past articles on impact fees from October 19, 2011 and May 2, 2012. The impact fee was very complicated issue and these articles should explain it well for you. The years you refer to during peak building years when you state the full fee was not collected is inaccurate (IMO). It was during the recession when SVSD tripled the fee and builders were threatening lawsuits over the tripled fee. Both Snoqualmie and North Bend requested idemnification language from the district in order to collect the increased fee, as they didn’t want any potential lawsuit for a fee they do not set, only collect, for SVSD. Anyway, it was complicated, and both of the articles should help explain it pretty well. Mayor Larson was interviewed for one of the articles too. If you have further questions, he always seems open to discussing what transpired and the history of the situation.

  • Danna,
    Thank you for this article. It is a discussion that is very much needed. As you know, I have been fighting for more school funding since my daughter was in Kindergarten. She is now going into the 9th grade. Like your kids, there is no way the problems at the high school will be addressed before my daughter graduates. But I will continue this cause because I do not want other children in our school district to suffer from a similar fate.

    I agree with Stephen that there are deep wounds that must be addressed if we are ever to pass a school construction bond in our school district. The biggest of these wounds was the school board vote to close Snoqualmie Middle School – in spite of the fact that Mount Si High School was nowhere near capacity. Our community passed a bond to build a third middle school in 2003. Taking that middle school away without a vote of the people and in the absence of a real capacity problem at the high school has caused a deep sense of betrayal in our community. This sense of betrayal is so strong that three of the five incumbent school board directors who voted to close Snoqualmie Middle School have since been voted out of office. A fourth was nearly voted out of office last fall. This is the strongest rejection of incumbents of any school board in our State in the past 10 years.

    There is a solution to this problem. First, to restore the trust of the voters, Snoqualmie Middle School must be reopened. It is wrong to harm thousands of middle school students when there is no actual benefit to our high school students. Second, a bond for a sixth elementary school should be put on the ballot as soon as possible. Failing to do this will deprive hundreds of students of full day Kindergarten and cost our school district millions of dollars in lost class size reduction funds. Third, the school board should file a petition in Superior Court demanding that the State legislature honor the State Constitution by fully funding the entire cost of a $200 million high school expansion. Our Supreme Court in the recent McCleary decision specifically stated that the legislature must not only bear the full cost of operating schools but also the full cost of building schools. Together these three steps would meet the needs of our elementary school, middle school and high school students for many years to come and at a cost to homeowners of less than $30 million. A similar successful lawsuit in Arizona led to a school construction boom that created thousands of jobs and provided schools for tens of thousands of students.

    These steps may not help your kids or my daughter. But they could help generations of students in our school district and in other school districts around Washington State.
    David Spring, Parent, North Bend

  • Danna: You’re right, I stand corrected. I looked through my own past school board meeting notes that I keep and noted the reasoning of City of Snoqualmie relayed to the school board second hand about their supposed fear of potential threats from developers over the legally increased impact fees. However, City of North Bend did comply with the increase, as reconfirmed by a city council rep I checked with. Makes one wonder what is so different about the relationship between Snoqualmie and developers, huh?

    Regardless, the fact remains that impact fees pay for only a small portion of new building construction…although they can pay for a sizable portion of new portable classrooms (since they cost far less) which has proved to come in handy over the past several years. SVSD needs much more capital fund money for school construction & renovation than what can possibly come from impact fees alone. WA state is supposed to be paying for new schools, but their contribution for that has dropped from >80% to 17% last i heard for SVSD, and many are hoping that the Supreme Court decision (NEWS) may eventually correct that (which it hasn’t yet after a few years). David Spring has been fighting a good fight with Olympia over state funding, but just like so many others doing the same is not yet successful. Meanwhile, there’s a continuing need for local property owners to pay for additional bonds for new schools. And for that to be successful, bond proposals need to be carefully crafted to minimize taxpayer impact, spread over time, and made appealing to enough voters to result in the super-majority (60% approval) needed for passage.

  • Barbara, I readily admit that I don’t know myself what the consensus opinion, if there is any, among MSHS teachers, and other teachers throughout the district, is regarding their opposition or support for the Option A bond proposal. I can only relay what I’ve heard from the half dozen MSHS teachers, and another half dozen middle & elementary school teachers, have told me…

    The half dozen MSHS teachers have told me that they are not supportive of the Freshman Campus as a separate entity, and they don’t see a solution in the proposed facilities construction/renovation plan to address it. They feel it is harming both the 9th graders there and the 10-12 graders on the main campus for a variety of reasons ranging from new limitations on class sign-ups, safety, maturity growth, staffing demands, and in the additional drain on the General Fund which pays for all instruction. They are very concerned about the disruption among students at the high school during the multi-year renovation/construction that this bond proposal would bring, and some are concerned about the resulting mega-high school size it would end up at (among the largest in WA) when studies have shown how school size negatively impacts student academic outcomes & safety.

    The middle/elem teachers are concerned about the new disadvantages and harm caused by much larger middle schools and what they see as a related growth in teacher-to-student ratios. Ie, they are seeing a new problem in the earlier education of K-8 students that is a clog backing up the system before they even become freshman, placing unusual new pressures on them to try and prepare those kids for high school amidst other pressures of Common Core curriculum adoption, TPAP, etc. Also, despite not really being STEM-fluent teachers themselves, even they understand that trying to engage students into STEM in 9th grade (one of the cited benefits of the freshman-only campus) is too late…getting kids interested into STEM careers has to begin in middle school at the latest.

    What that adds up to is a lack of SVSD teacher staff confidence in the administration and school board, a view that they are not being consulted and indeed ignored, and that the school board is more interested in constructing more pretty buildings than aggressively pursuing improvements in education of kids.

    Again, what I’m relaying here is a tiny sampling, and may not be very representative at all of the majority of teacher staff views. I personally don’t see things exactly the same as the teachers I spoke with, although I do agree in many aspects with what I’ve heard. The point is: the administration and school board needs to take the time to investigate staff support, opposition, and revise their bond proposal as needed to enhance its chances of success.

    1. Wow. So there’s no solution? FC doesn’t work. ‘Mega’ high school doesn’t work, even though we’ve spent lots to determine that we’re a 1 high school community…
      …But we also know we need more capacity. Would it help if we made the buildings ‘ugly’, maybe used recycled materials. How about the new ES and MS that we so desperately need–should we make those ugly.
      Wow. How DO other Districts do it? Our are problems that unique?
      It’s been a year since I’ve stepped in on these discussions, and we’re right where we were last year. The ONLY real argument I’ve heard against a comprehensive bond is that the ‘staff isn’t on board.’ (Still not sure what that’s about). Oh, then there’s ‘the Board is too interested in building pretty buildings.’ Really?
      How about we talk to Tahoma SD. Similar demographic and they got it done. Wonder if their new buildings will be big and shiny?
      We’re getting nowhere fast…

  • Living Snoqualmie