Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Conversation about the Community Conversation

Tomorrow night, the school board will engage in a "Community Conversation" regarding over-crowding in the schools in the south end of the Everett School District.  We DO have some issues, however, I don't always believe they are as dramatic or accurate as presented at times and the information seems to be constantly shifting.

As you may remember, if you follow this blog, the Everett School District suffered from an historic double failure of a bond earlier this year. And, oddly, the school board based the Superintendent's 5.5% raise, in part, on the fact that they got 58% of the vote in FAVOR of the bond that failed (it required 60% to approve).  So, they called a failure a success?  But, I digress.....  They've failed a bond in the past, but then managed to get it through the second try.  But, this time, the public said, "Nope" twice in about 8 weeks to a record quarter billion dollars capital funds request (used for building and upgrading facilities, not classroom dollars). I think everyone at the brand spanking new district office was stunned by the defeat because the word is that Everett voters are called "generous" by the district.  Well, the brand new district office built with money that could have been used to alleviate some of the over-crowding issues didn't sit well with the taxpayers.  While the administration was crying about their over-crowded, poorly maintained and outdated facilities, they were turning a blind eye to the students being in the same.  While portables at the old district office were being cried about, students were being stacked into them at some of our schools.  The community failed to see the benefit of their $27 million new and oddly named, "Community Resource Center" that was never approved by the taxpayers and came at the expense of some of our schools.  

So, here we are.  First of all, passing the bond this year wouldn't have done much for over-crowding for 3-5 years at the elementary and middle school level and up to 10 years at the high school level. Which brings me to my first question: If they knew this situation was coming, why didn't they take action before this year?

Anyway, the first hour of the Special Board Meeting held tomorrow night at our district's MOST over-crowded school includes a Power Point presentation for the School Board.  The next hour is an opportunity for the community to have one-on-one conversations with school board members.

I went through the Power Point slides today and see some "embellishment" and over-statements that I'd like to comment on.  One thing I think we have ALL learned about government agencies who want your money is that they tend to be a bit melodramatic in the presentation of their information.  We learned that with the King Count Transit fiasco where voters were told that if they didn't approve a large increase for transportation that basically, it would be "Busmageddon" and the cuts to service would be MASSIVE.  Well, when the voters rejected their request, the TRUTH was that there WAS enough money and not a single route was cut.

So, I have picked out some slides to comment on and hope that if you're going tomorrow night that you'll at least think about what I've said and perhaps use your one-on-one conversation to seek clarification from the district.

Again, I am not disputing that there is over-crowding.  But, I am questioning how bad it is and whether the ONLY solution is to build new schools.

Ahhhh... right for the throat right out of the gates.  Yes, there IS an impact to the failure of the 2014 bond.  However, don't blame the public....  I think the point about reduction of funding for teachers and classroom support is a little "bogey man".  Why is there reduction?  Because maintenance will have to happen now on schools they are letting go downhill because they thought they would be remodeled or replaced soon.  They will actually have to fix the walkways at North Middle School - which should have been maintained all along. Sadly, though, the maintenance department is pretty skinny.  The budget has been shaken down time and time again and is now over-worked and understaffed.  Who needs maintenance when the taxpayers are going to give you whatever you want (until now)?  And, thankfully the district is going to be forced to potentially sell unused or underused properties. Why are we mowing the lawn at the old District office location when they can't even lock the bathroom doors at the high school because the locks are all pulled off?

Again, though, passing the giant bond this year wouldn't have done much to alleviate the over-crowding.

I don't think looking back to 1950 does anything but provide a dramatic red line.  Look what happened in the 70's.  And, if you were to do a graph just since 2000, it's been a pretty flat line.  The district predicted in 1990 that there would be 20,000 students by 2000.  We have never gotten to 20,000 and finally just passed 19,000 last year.

We DID have a jump last year and it will probably continue to climb, but it WILL level off at a certain point - and, I believe even decline as the land in the district is finally completely built out and the demographics change.  Anecdotally, in my cul du sac, we had 18 school age children when my children started school.   There are now just a few high schoolers, even fewer middle schoolers and just 1 elementary school child.  Most neighbors are empty nesters with kids in college and we have ONE young couple who moved in and had a baby.  While there is a lot of building going on in the south end, there are also a lot of mature households without school age children.

I'm calling FOUL on the Jackson number.  If you got the email invitation to the meeting from the district, they made the following claim: Henry M. Jackson High School, built in 1994 for 1,500 students, and expanded in 2005 to 1,783 students, now has over 2,100 students! (exclamation point is theirs, not mine)

Look at THIS Seattle Times news story from 1993. Here's the relevant quote from it if you don't want to go read it yourself:

"The new high school, just north of Mill Creek, will open in 1994 with 667 students because it will serve only the ninth and 10th grades. This way, current high-school students will be allowed to graduate without changing schools. When the school is open for ninth through 12th grades in 1996, its enrollment is expected to be about 1,900, said Marijo Rymer, district spokeswoman."

So, was Jackson REALLY built for just 1500 students?  It doesn't look like it.  Having 1500 students is their TARGET - it's the number they have somewhere along the line decided is the magic line that once crossed turns a high school into an over-crowded high school.  No one was apparently freaking out about 1900 students in 1993 - they ASSUMED it would happen.  

UPDATE: I arrived at the meeting last night and was handed a pamphlet that the district seemed to use to try to refute a lot of our information.  This part was amusing as it was a direct shot at us (at least use our name and give us credit.....).  I'm sorry, but I didn't write the Seattle Times article, nor did the Seattle Times make up the number themselves.  The district spokeswoman at the time said herself that Jackson was expected to have 1,900 students when it opened as a full high-school.  Generally, just shooting the messenger is an ineffective method of refuting a claim. Saying that we "misinterpreted" is a head-scratcher since there's nothing to interpret.  The statement in the article is really quite clear.  Someone said, "Well, it's a 20 year-old article."  Again, so what?  I didn't make it up and as far as I know, 1,900 is still 1,900 even 20 years later.  

 The headcount of 19,244 is the September headcount of all students.  The October headcount, which USUALLY increases slightly over September in the past was actually 19,226.  Not a huge difference, I know, but still, they lost 18 students in a month.  That being said, there's something to understand about headcount; it is bodies who come through your door or programs at some point during the day and not necessarily bodies sitting in a chair from bell to bell each day.  The FTE number - or Full Time Equivalent count is the one that, in my opinion, matters more.  If you have a home-schooled child taking band or PE at school for just one or two periods a day, they get included in the headcount - no matter how many of them there are.  But, for the purposes of FTE, it takes several of those students to make up 1 FTE - depending on how many periods or hours they are physically in your school or program.  This is probably MORE relevant for upper grades, but it's STILL relevant.

I haven't seen the October FTE number, yet, however, the September FTE number is 18,274 (rounded up slightly).  That is a decrease of 970 students over the straight headcount.  So, we have just more than 18,000 rear ends that need to have a chair from bell-to-bell each day.  It's not the same 18,000 rear ends, but at some point, the equivalent of 18,000 rear ends need a place to sit. Those other kids might be at school for just a few hours or not at all as they are doing Running Start or other programs administered by the district but not necessarily at a regular school in a traditional sense.

So, looking at these numbers, you see that we have a lot of elementary schools "over capacity".  However, let's look at the numbers using FTE numbers and even the headcount numbers.  

If you take the September FTE for K-5 of 8,807, that alone tells you that the district still has FTE capacity for 170 K-5 students when compared to the capacity of 8,977.  Of course, that's spread across ALL elementary schools so it's not going to help, say, Woodside.  But, it's important to note that for the purposes of FULL-TIME-REARS-IN-A-CHAIR students, we are UNDER capacity districtwide.

If you take the September headcount of 9,332 (the actual reported headcount, not the projected enrollment as stated on the slide)  and strip out the 255 out-of-district variances, then the district is really only over capacity by 100 headcounted K-5 students across the district.

Let's look at the high schools.  The September headcount for 9-12 is 5,537.  That alone is under the combined capacity of all high schools by 37 heads.  The FTE count for September is 5,373 which is 381 full time equivalent high school students UNDER capacity.  And, let's not forget that while Jackson's capacity is stated at 1,738, they expected 1,900 the first year it was used as a 4 year high school, yet it wasn't "over capacity" at that time.  

Let's take a quick look at in-district and out of district variance information.  I'll let you do the math, but if you start limiting variances from both in and out of the district or encourage them liberally for space-available schools, you could really clean up the overcrowding at all but a couple of the elementary schools.  And, keep in mind, the "projected student enrollment" numbers are not accurate - they are projections.  So, the actual numbers may be lower or higher.  But, you get my point.  Moving those rears around a bit could save the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.  

Okay, I'll just say it.  Yes, the district HAS 84 portable classrooms, but no, they are not ALL in use as classrooms right at this minute.  I mean, brand new James Monroe Elementary has two of them installed still and I bet if they are being used at all, it's storage or temporary activities. This slide was particularly heavy on the melodrama. Having portables isn't the same as USING portables as a classroom.

And frankly, give me 31 more portables for $4.65 million over a $259 million bond.  Portables (I call it the "P Word" because everyone freaks when they hear it) are not the devil.  Many teachers LIKE teaching in them because they are much quieter and students have fewer distractions.  Snoqualmie Valley School District calls them movable rooms and they give the district flexibility.  Read about it HERE.  That being said, you CAN have too many at one school.  Silver Firs had about a dozen of them on the playground before Forest View was built.  At a certain point, they DO tax the common areas like bathrooms and cafeterias, but we need to stop freaking out if our child has to go to school in one  It's truly a first world, 21st century problem.  Kids can learn in a portable as well as they can in a permanent classroom - it's the quality of the teacher that matters, not the location of the class.

APPLAUSE!  This is using the old noodle!  One good thing the double failure of the bond did was to force the district to be creative with the resources they have.  We should ALWAYS expect that, but sadly, many larger school districts in Western Washington have become dependent on a never-ending flow of "yes" votes and have not really had to figure out anything beyond than how to spend the money. 

While some might go catatonic over the idea of these possible solutions, I applaud the creativity.  Again, none of these solutions are going to cost as much money as building three+ new schools when we really DO have capacity around the district that is roughly equal to the number of full-time students.  That doesn't mean that we don't need some extra space, but even then, a little creativity applied to the situation may mean we don't need to tap the taxpayers for quite as much money.  The north end of the district will probably continue to drain and with the recent remodel of some of the EHS facilities and planned remodels of North MS, we need to look for creative ways to get students into those seats rather than just building more. 

Throughout my life, I have lived in areas where school districts had to do one or more of these things at times.  People survived and kids still learned.  As a parent in this district, I live nearly on the southern edge of the Jackson/Cascade boundary.  Jackson HS is not too far from my home, yet, my kids go all the way to Cascade.  And, that's okay.  At times I grumble and resent my many trips to the other side of town, but we're surviving and I get it.  The line has to be drawn somewhere.  

What is the solution for the challenges we have right now?  I don't entirely know.  I hope the community will speak up - and not just the parents in the south end of the district because, frankly, the ENTIRE district will be tapped for money for the south end schools.  Everyone needs to speak up and offer solutions. 

I believe the BEST solution will be one that involves BOTH building AND shifting.  You will get the biggest bang for you buck that way and it will cost the fewest bucks.  The challenge is that the district isn't happy to have to use operations funds (Levy) for what they perceive to be capital funds (bond money for building and remodeling/expanding) issues.  So, busing kids from an overcrowded school to a school with space costs money that has to come from somewhere.  I offer them the $660,000 bloated school board budget.... (ours is one of the highest in terms of cost per student).  

Reworking priorities will be a given.  This district appears to put adults over students in terms of money.  It's time, past time, actually, that should change - even at the expense of some of the adults.  Some hard decisions might have to be made to make sure our students are served first and best by the people in the new administration building.  One of the stated goals of that building was to inspire staff to do their best work.  Time to get crackin'

Friday, July 11, 2014

I Reached Out and Got Slapped...

The week after school was out, another member of the Everett School Board Project and I went and had what I would call a nice meeting with School Board President, Pam LeSesne and School Board Director, Caroline Mason.  

Was it testy at times - yes.  We haven't exactly had a friendly relationship. But, overall, it was a respectful and productive conversation.  I decided that it was time to go talk about the historic double bond failure and talk about possible reasons why it failed.  The district's official line seems to be that people just didn't have enough information.  Not sure where THAT information came from, but it seemed to be merely their opinion.  As far as I know, they did nothing to figure out why it failed twice.

Well, we did make an attempt to at least get some ideas and opinions from the general public as to why it may have failed.  We took an informal informational survey through Facebook and paid several hundred dollars to "boost" the post onto the Facebook walls of over 15,000 Everett school district voters age 18 and over.  It was as random as we could possibly get.  And, while the gist of the survey was to figure out WHY it failed, we didn't prevent anyone who voted to approve the $259 million bond package from participating.  The result was that about 40% "yes" voters and 60% "no" voters.  It was roughly flipped from the actual results, but it was NOT an extreme amount of "no" votes that would have made the survey extremely skewed.  We also kept a close eye on the responses so no one from the district could try to skew it as happened with a previous poll we posted (we can see multiple answers and trace the IP address to home addresses - we remove multiple votes before analyzing results). And, we allowed comments on some of the questions - which we felt would be more beneficial than just marking a box.  We understand that our opinions may not be the opinions of everyone.  So, where appropriate, they got to create their own response.  

Mark Twain famously said once, "There are lies, damn lies and statistics".  My educational background is in sociology and my favorite class (oddly, because I'm not a math person) was Social Statistics.  I understand and can smell a badly written poll or survey a mile away.  And, let me tell you, if anyone is guilty of "voodoo" polls that practically guarantee the outcome they want, it's the school district.  I attempted to provide a platform in our poll to let people express their opinions if they chose to participate.  Was it somewhat biased towards the "no" voters?  Of course it was.  But, the point of the poll was to figure out WHY people voted against the bond.  

So, as my compatriot and I wandered into the new administration building on a Monday morning, I had in hand, copies of the results of our poll thinking that since the district didn't reach out to voters with any sort of poll to figure out why the bond failed, that they might find our information useful as they construct another package for the future.  

The meeting was just four of us.  I specifically requested that it not include any district staff.  This was a meeting between two voters and two elected school board members.  It was the second time the ESBP has sat down with the district.  The first time was quite unproductive due to the absolutely rude nature of then Board President, Jeff Russell.  It was clear from his body language that he had no intention of being mentally present at that meeting. This meeting was at least productive because we had two Board members willing to listen.  

The discussion revolved mainly around public perceptions.  The district might feel perfectly justified in doing what they do, but they can't ignore the perception of the voters.  Continually patting themselves on the back about spending $29 million that could have gone to solve some of the needs in the schools doesn't sit well with the taxpayers.  There is also the issue of the vague numbers and needs. The public is having a hard time seeing the crisis.  Are some of our schools overcrowded?  Yes.  But, the problem may be solved for less than $259 million with a little creativity and courage on behalf of the School Board.  We have some schools with empty classrooms - they just aren't in the areas of growth. 

The package I left Pam and Caroline with included a copy of the poll we did and several pages of other information that we felt provided some positive examples of good bond language and packages.  I'm not sure we came away as "friends", but the lines of communication are now open in a way that they haven't been before.  I felt like it was a good step forward.  The Everett School Board Project members should be shown the same respect as any PTA, Rotary Club or union membership.  When you operate for the public, it's unreasonable to think you can ignore dissenting voices. 

So, with a little hope in hand, we left the new administration building.  I had no delusions that a full report wasn't going to land on the Superintendent's desk within minutes of us leaving.  In fact, part of me believes we may have been recorded since we were in a public building.  But, I figured that if we didn't reach out after being so critical during the two bond campaigns, that we were not really serious about wanting to be part of the solution and, more importantly, part of the change.  

Every Friday, Superintendent Gary Cohn produces an internal report for district staff. It's a "newsy" report of what's gone on during the week - awards, grants, retirements, meetings and communication between board members, administrators and the general public.  Since it's public record, our ESBP member and blog contributor, Rodman Reynolds, makes a request for the reports and posts them at the ESBP.  While most of the report isn't of much interest to those outside the employ of the district, there is often commentary in the section labeled "Board-Superintendent Communication" that may be interesting to members of the public.  It's where the Superintendent selects and links (although we don't get the links) emails between members of the board and/or himself and the general public.  I'm not really a fan of that section, though. While I understand that when you email an elected official, it becomes public record, I think that people expect a bit of discretion at times. For instance, last Summer there were some complaints about a teacher getting a contract renewed even though the district had essentially re-assigned that teacher and was hiring a replacement.  When the teacher was re-instated at the last minute, several parents complained.  Those emails (with the last name of the family in the link) made it into the Friday report.  I think it's inappropriate to create contention between parents who must then support that teacher and the teacher who must then teach their children.  I don't know how the Superintendent determines who gets a mention in the Friday report, but it's usually just a handful of emails that are included and I'm assuming it's not ALL that were received.  And, even if it IS all that were received that week, he doesn't have to put them in the report.  It appears to be either thoughtless or petty at times.   

Anyway, Rodman posted the Friday Report from June 28 and, no surprise, the string of emails I sent back and forth to Pam LeSesne and Caroline Mason are included.  I assumed that as I had the communication exchange with the Board members that I would probably land in the Friday report.  And, I did. However, what I didn't expect was to land in the Friday report with extremely condescending commentary and a dismissal of credibility by the Superintendent.  You can read the whole report HERE.  Or, the short version is:

The second and third are brief exchanges between a patron and Director Mason and Director LeSesne as a result of a recent conversation scheduled in response to the board president's call for community members to contact her to provide opinions regarding the recent capital bond elections. (An Internet website poll is also attached. See below a Daily Herald editorial criticizing a city council for relying on unscientific Internet polls for policy making decisions that are responsibility of elected officials.)

Essentially, my attempt to provide some clarity into why the bond might have failed was dismissed as "VooDoo Polling" by the Superintendent, who apparently thinks The Herald is the expert in polling because he also links THIS opinion piece to his snide remarks.   Side Note:  The Herald endorsed me when I ran for school board.  I hardly think he called them "genius'" when they did that.  This is without knowing the details of how we gathered the results or conducted the poll.  He must assume we just put the link on The Everett School Board Project and no where else.  It wasn't simply enough to say, "An unscientific poll taken by the patron is attached".  He had to passively-aggressively tell the staff to completely ignore whatever the poll says.  And, he also managed to tell those who took the time to complete the poll to "shove it" - their opinion doesn't matter.

His comments are extremely ironic, though.  Through the process of building the new administration building and during a few other issues, the district has either employed someone to conduct surveys for them or constructed them themselves.  They have not been scientific, but somehow, the results were "holier" than the results of our survey (which - again, we NEVER claimed was scientific).  

In 2011, many Everett voters received a phone call "survey" that lead us to believe was being conducted by the district.  It was to gauge community support for the proposed "Community Resource Center".  It was so incredibly biased that we put it on speaker phone and laughed our heads off over it. Every single question was designed to sweep you into a corner so that your "support" could be declared in the end.  If you didn't answer positively to one question, it was rephrased and asked again in another format that started with something like, Which of these are you MOST LIKELY to support?"  You always had to offer a measure of support.  It was hysterically biased and manipulative.  And, later on, through the Public Disclosure Commission, I found out that the district paid about $14,000 to a lobbyist group in Oregon to conduct the survey.  The general goal of their group is to get "yes" votes and support for governmental agencies seeking increased funding and new projects.  Clearly, the survey was totally unbiased.... *roll eyes*

Then there was the survey sent out by the district when they were discussing messing up the start and end times of the school day to work out some busing issues.  It was probably one of the most confusing and poorly written surveys I have ever seen.  The results were presented in a very skewed manner that when analyzed correctly, basically said that parents were opposed to the change of school day times.  But, that's not how it was presented.  In the end, the idea was scrapped.  

Then there are the district's "Public Forums" in which they pay a highly trained moderator to come control and manipulate the unsuspecting public to "prove" that they agree with the district's goals and wants.  You can read about it HERE.  It's hardly scientific and open dialogue when you seek to control the conversation to the point that the only option the public has is to support at least one of your proposals.   

And, then, during the first bond campaign early this year, another phone call from the same lobbying group was made to district voters and again, was so badly manipulative that a friend told me she interrupted the caller and asked, "When do you let me express my opinion on this because so far all you're doing is just attempting to force me to agree with yours."  Yes, totally scientific and unbiased....

So, as The Everett School Board Project reached out to the School Board and tried to find ways we could come together on getting some very needed projects done to upgrade and remodel our schools, I feel like the Superintendent just punched us (all four of us in the meeting) in the face. Rather than appreciating that his critics are willing to work with the district to improve education for our kids, he clearly implied he wasn't interested in our help, opinions or information.  

And, then he cashed his paycheck with his new 5.5% raise....


Monday, May 19, 2014

Possible Explanations for Why the Everett School District Bond Failed

After running our poll from a few days after the bond failed in April until last week, we decided it was time to publish the results.  This certainly isn't scientific, however, through the wonders of Facebook, we managed to randomly reach out to as many as 20,000 Everett residents of voting age to offer them the opportunity to respond to the poll.  Of course, not all of them did, but we got a sample size of several hundred from that outreach and the results were fairly consistent throughout the polling period. We did not discriminate by political party or specifically seek those who may have voted against the bond.  We just put it out there and let it happen.   We are confident we got the best sampling we could have.  Where comment space was offered, we included all the comments left by those taking the poll.  Here are the results:

Thursday, May 8, 2014

After Getting it wrong TWICE, the Herald does a "mea culpa"....

by Kim

The $259 million Question is.... will the school board and Superintendent do the same?  For the sake of the taxpayers and the students, let's hope so....

We'll be presenting the results of our poll about the bond failure here next week.  But, the Herald is on track with the current trend we're getting in the results.  You can take the poll HERE if you haven't already.  But, the short version so far shows that, it really was about trust.

When Everett voters in February passed the school district's operating levy, but rejected the bond proposal, which requires a 60 percent approval vote, they were sending a clear message. Not enough voters were convinced that the district had made a case for the need of a $259 million bond issue to build a new high school, a new elementary school and make improvements at North Middle School and Woodside Elementary School, among other projects.
Initially, the school district and school board said they wanted to hear from the community about why the bond was rejected. However, they quickly interpreted the loss as a case of not enough pro-bond voters bothering to vote. And so they put the very same $259 million bond back on the ballot in April.
The second bond vote did bring a few more voters, but just as the bond remained the same, the outcome was also nearly identical: In February, the yes vote was 10,654, or 58.13 percent; 7,674 or 41.87 percent voted no. (A total of 18,328 voters.) In April, 19,892 people voted, which broke down to 11,663 or 58.63 percent voting yes, and 8,229 or 41.37 percent voting no.
With 73,606 registered voters in the Everett School District boundaries, it's easy to understand why the district thought more people would come forward to vote. But they did not. Of those who did vote, the message was the same. The rejection reflects that enough people don't trust the district with such a large bond, especially when it comes to awarding construction contracts, building cost estimates, and non-specific language about “other improvements” or “other projects.”
So what now? This editorial board endorsed the April measure, as it did in February. But the voters have spoken, and it's time to go back to the drawing board. The district can't come back with another ballot measure this year, which is a good thing. It gives the district time to come back with a whittled down bond, with reordered priorities. For example, despite some cases of overcrowding, the remodeling and renovation of existing buildings is a bigger priority than building a new high school. The use of portables (modular buildings, not “trailers”) are a smart option to building new because school districts experience population ebbs and flows. After similar bond failures, the Snoqualmie Valley School District has found great success with the use of portables.
The district needs to show it is listening to voters, even, (or especially,) if they are in the “minority,” but bother to actually vote. A revamped bond in another year will be the chance to do just that.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Everett School District Bond - Your Thoughts!

Please take our survey about why you voted how you did and what could be done in the next bond vote.  The survey takes about 5 minutes. Results will be shared with the School Board.  We encourage you to share this with your local friends - the more responses we have, the more accurate the survey is as a measure of public opinion.  

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Superintendent SPEAKS (sort of)

This was sent to all district employees from Superintendent Gary Cohn a couple of days after the bond vote and when it really looked like it wasn't going to pass again.  My commentary is in red.  

Dear Colleague:

With only ten ballots remaining to be counted at the elections office, the published results yesterday afternoon were higher than the day before, but still less than 60 percent. As of the announcement yesterday, we had 58.58 percent approval for the bond – an impressive majority and enough to elect the officials who guide our nation and state, but not enough to build schools for students.

Thank goodness this still requires a 60% super majority.  Bond votes obligate local taxpayers to 20 years of taxes and can have consequences on the local economy in the future.  We want these long-term obligations to be thoughtfully passed with that knowledge. This isn't a tax that will go away in a few years - it's a long-term obligation and it should NOT be easy for a district to pass without solid numbers and reasons for asking the taxpayers to pay the district's debt for 20 years. The PTA and others are lobbying to get the law changed to a simple majority, but hopefully the taxpayers will fight that.  You want to tie me to 20 years of your debt, it's not going to be easy....  

This morning I am sharing with you the spirit of the response our Board of Directors President Pam LeSesne gave the media who called her when yesterday’s election results were posted. I share her sentiments, as I also share our collective and dauntless resolve to continue this work on behalf of our students.

“In our classrooms, students learn about the value and power of our Democracy. The election result is not what the board or the district hoped for. However, it is our voter’s answer, and we respect it.

The rest of the letter doesn't sound like it....

“Voters said no to our request for funding to build schools for more students. While the voters said no, the district cannot say no to the families moving here and to the hundreds and hundreds of students who will enter our classrooms in the next decade.

DRAMA ALERT!!!!  This is not a decade-long failure.  They get to ask again in February.  

“Voters said no to technology that will help students build skills they will need for their futures. Without that technology infrastructure, our students will not be as competitive in their careers and higher education. “Our challenge now is, without these resources, how to respond to the real needs of children in Everett Public Schools.

I don't believe what they're saying and they shouldn't either.  No one said "No" to kids. They said "no" to an administration and board who puts themselves first. It's shameful to keep using children as pawns this way. How about you ASK the voters why they said "no" instead of making sweeping assumptions that present a false idea that voters said "no" to punish the students? How many of those projects could your $28 million have said "yes" to?  

“The board and district’s next step is to consider what options we have for accommodating the hundreds of students who will be coming to our district over the next decade and in what ways we can ensure the best possible educational technology access for students.

DRAMA ALERT 2.0!!!!  This is not a decade-long failure.  They get to ask again in February.  
“Until the board is able to convene and discuss tonight’s results and set future direction, the district must put these capital projects on hold. “School districts can put bonds and levies on the ballot just twice a year – that is state law. If the board decides to ask voters again for some or all of this construction funding, the soonest that election could occur is February 2015.”

There is no one to blame but themselves. They could have waited until August to put this on the ballot again - Ferndale, Lynden and others around the state are waiting.  There was no hurry and, by doing what they did, THEY have delayed the projects, NOT the voters. 

If they had put it on the August ballot after some thoughtful changes and listening to more than those who will vote for anything you attach a photo of a wide-eyed child to, they may have well passed it and could have accessed money by the Fall. Instead, they listened to those who voted "yes" the first time and just warmed it up and rammed it through again.  Now, they can't ask again until early 2015 and so, rather than projects being delayed just a few months, they are potentially delayed up to a year.  But, it was their decision to put it on the ballot again so fast, not anyone else's. They must own that fact.  

As President LeSesne says, the board must convene to consider options, and that is a process that will take time and certainly more than a few discussions. We will begin preparing for the board some options for the timing and staging of educational technology. We will gather options for reconsidering how we focus operational funds and capital funds – and how and if we continue with any projects on the drawing board. This is going to take time, and I will keep in touch with you along the way as we consider some difficult decisions.

Voters across the state, in districts large and small turned down capital bond requests. As of Thursday evening, only two out of 12 April 22 school issues were passing. Lakewood School District to the north of us had gleaned 60.05 percent. Reardan-Edwall School District in Lincoln County earned an impressive 66.25 percent approval. (Actually, what I'm reading is that this bond FAILED.  It straddles two counties and while Lincoln County voters heartily approved it with 66.25%, Spokane County voters rejected it in numbers that kept it from passing.  It only got 54.93% approval)

The other district Thursday results were:

  • Pioneer,59.53%
  • Highland,58.90%
  • Everett,58.58%
  • Bridgeport,53.06%
  • Lake Washington,52.39%
  • Tenino,52.27%
  • WallaWalla,52.17%
  • Oakesdale,48.93%
  • Sequim, 43.61%
  • Dayton, 27.73%

All but Lake Washington and Everett are small districts in remote or rural areas that are still economically depressed or have small tax bases.  None of these are "news" or even comparable. In fact, Pioneer District is on its SEVENTH try to pass their bond.  Dayton is so tiny that it has ONE high school with 240 kids. The fact that these bonds didn't pass isn't unusual.  It often takes several tries in small communities. 

Thank you for your work on behalf of students, and please remember that 58.58 percent speaks loudly about the majority support your work and our students have from this community.

The law says you need more than a simple majority to pass a bond. Maybe it's time to reach past that "majority" and find out why the 42% voted against it.  Given that Everett hasn't had a bond failure in 18 years and hasn't had a DOUBLE bond failure in 39, there might be a need assess the actual reason why rather than making assumptions or crowing about "majority support". That kind of talk doesn't exactly start winning over the 42% who will surely be voting again in February 2015.  

Warm Regards,

Friday, April 25, 2014

Everett School District Bond Rejected Again

While the April 22 Everett School District Bond vote will not officially be certified by the county until May 6, and there MAY be a handful of votes counted and added to the total in their next update on May 2, it's basically a final tally here 3 days after the election.  Yesterday's tally barely budged the needle in the district's favor and I don't think there are enough votes out there still to be reported that will push it to the needed 60%.  

Here's how it looks for Round 2 of the Everett School District $259 million bond request:  
Vote CountPercent
APPROVED11,590   58.58%
Total Votes:19,784

And, here are the certified results from the February vote:

APPROVED          10,654   58.13%
REJECTED            7,674    41.87%

Total Votes         18,328

You can read my take on Round 1 HERE.  

So, they essentially got 1,456 more people to vote in Round 2 - a mere 8% increase. They got a 9% increase in those who approved the bond and 7% increase in those who rejected the bond.  At the end of the day, they didn't even gain .5% in the final approval and certainly didn't get to their required 60% to pass it.  

I assume, that like Round 1, they will sing the praises of the MORE than 50% who voted "YES".  However, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. They don't get the money.  

Now, let's apply a little history here - The Everett School District LOVES their history. They talk about it all the time and Larry O'Donnell - champion of everything the district does - even wrote a book on it in the early 1990's that I just happen to have a copy of.  

The last time Everett faced an embarrassing (and really quite spectacular) bond failure was 1975.  The district presented an $11 million bond in February of that year, and, not unlike February of this year, the levy passed and the bond failed.  However, they waited an ENTIRE YEAR to try again, but alas, the bond failed AGAIN in February 1976.  They put it on the ballot again that same year during the September primary election and it failed AGAIN.  They finally set it aside for nearly 2 years and tried again with an increased amount of $16,972,000 in February 1978.  They also had a smaller bond of $1.5 million for district swimming pools. The regular bond passed that year and the swimming pool bond failed.  

But, notice that when the bond failed the first time, they didn't rush to put it on the ballot again with the attitude that they just needed to beat the bushes for more voters.  They waited a year and suffered the humiliation of having it fail THREE TIMES in a row before they set it aside for nearly 18 months. 

In other words, it's been nearly 40 years since we had this kind of failure in the district. There was another less spectacular bond failure in 1996.  The district ran a bond in February that got less than 55% support. They did exactly what they did this year and ran it again immediately in April and got 60.3% approval. Perhaps they relied too heavily on history to repeat itself 18 years later.  

Meanwhile, I have heard the School Board and Administration pat themselves on the back in the last couple of years for getting done what no other Superintendent and Board has been able to do for 20 years - they built a new administration building! Okay, GREAT!  But then they also must own the fact that they achieved another historic milestone that stretches back farther than 20 years - they failed a bond TWICE in a row.....  Are the new administration building and the bond failure connected? Absolutely!  

So, what next?  They cannot legally run another bond until February 2015.  I assume that will run it again, then.   However, will it be the same package with the backed-in and unsubstantiated project guesstimates and unrestrained money usage based solely on the discretion of the School Board? Who knows. It shouldn't be the same package and language if they truly got the message they were sent by the voters.  

Of course, we here at the Everett School Board Project will be presenting our ideas in the coming weeks.  We hope the school board and Superintendent has the courage to consider them.  We would even welcome a meeting with Board President, Pam LeSesne to discuss them.  Now is not the time to gather in all their properly pedigreed community friends to figure out what went wrong.  In fact, I believe that parade of "Community Leaders" actually just annoys the living daylights out of average people - I heard it every time a letter appeared the paper from one of them.  

Now is also not the time to fire up a public meeting that is carefully controlled and led by their expert manipulators.  Now is the time to reach past the PTA cheerleaders and go directly to the moms and dads who, besides having kids in the schools, don't have any other connections or agendas beyond making sure their children are in safe and effective buildings getting a good education. 

This will take a signal to the public that they are willing to accept public input outside their next Rotary meeting.  This may take a Town Hall-style meeting where no one is telling us we must "accept positions we may not normally want to accept" or told what is and isn't acceptable to ask or discuss or that we are allowed to only make a 3-minute statement to which they will not respond in a board meeting.  This may take them setting up tables at concerts, sporting events and Curriculum Nights and going where the parents are instead of asking the parents to come to their 4:30 Tuesday afternoon board meetings.  They are going to have to listen FAR more than they talk.  

We were told after the first bond failure that the only real failure was that we (the voters) didn't get enough information and that not enough of us bothered to vote.  So, rather than listening (beyond asking for emails which they apparently only really wanted from supporters), they decided to just talk LOUDER and more OFTEN about the bond - as if that was all we needed as a public.  

I could have told them that wasn't going to work.  But, I don't have to now....

UPDATE: The Great Transportation Fix....

Check out what happened after we suggested a fix to a transportation issue that caused the district to look at messing with school hours.  

LINK to the original post with update.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What it looks like to respect the taxpayers and put students first....

I'm sure the Bellingham School District has it's challenges and critics.  I don't think there's a school district in the country that doesn't.  However, in looking around at other local bond issues the other night to see what had been done and what was being done, I stumbled across a bond I could have gotten behind.

Last November (stay tuned, I'll comment on that in a moment, or one of our new school board directors will, rather), Bellingham ran a $160 million bond that passed with 66% approval.  The bond includes an ambitious list of projects not unlike our own.  They will rebuild two schools (I went to both) that are currently 48 and 52 years old.  By the time the 48 year old high school opens on the same property the current one is, that school will be 52 years old.  They apparently don't possess the arbitrary 40 year replacement cycle. They replace based on need.

They will update, modernize and repair roofs and HVAC systems in several other schools not unlike our own list of projects.

There is no technology on the bond because they ran it in a separated tech and operations levy in the past.

They asked for $2 million to upgrade the bus barn - something Everett did without asking the voters and something they use to justify the way they built the administration building.

They will build a small, new alternative high school that has been housed in portables for nearly 20 years.

They will upgrade the fields at all three Bellingham high schools

And, they will upgrade the facilities at their version of the Lively Property.

But, here's the kicker.  They ASKED voters for $17 million to update and do safety upgrades to their 106 year old district office building (their version of the Longfellow building).  They aren't asking for a new building - just for upgrades to it.  Is $17 million a lot of money?  Yes, it is.  However, the statements made in this video warm my heart.  In a nutshell, they say they acknowledge that no one really wants to pay for this BUT, they also flat out say that "we don't need to build a luxurious, large new building."  Is that a shout out to Everett?  Check out the video below.  

Now for the timing of their bond.  They ran it last November.  Yes, NOVEMBER!  That saved the district a LOT of money by running it alongside a regular election.  But, by running it during a regular election, they were obligated to allow both a for AND against statement in the local voter's guide. The thought of that would cause our administration to curl into the fetal position in their new offices.  

In fact, at the March 4 school board meeting where the timing of re-running the bond was discussed, new Board Member, Caroline Mason, had reservations about waiting until November because voters might get confused about what they're voting on. Please... we are just as smart a Bellingham voters.  I think we could have figured it out. The translation of the statement is that in November, there would be too many voters who were there for other things and voted on the bond as an afterthought vs. voters in February and April who are there just for the bond.  

Now, let's talk briefly about the language of the bond itself.  It's BINDING! They don't give themselves a whole lot of closed-door wiggle room to do anything with extra money beyond doing MORE improvements to school facilities:

Section 2. Capital Improvements. The District shall make the following capital improvements (the “Improvements”): 


The cost of all necessary planning, architectural, engineering, and other consulting services, inspection and testing, administrative and relocation expenses, on and off-site utilities, related improvements and other costs incurred in connection with the making of the foregoing capital improvements shall be deemed a part of the costs of the Improvements. Such improvements shall include all necessary furniture, equipment and appurtenances.

If available funds are sufficient from the proceeds of Bonds authorized for the above purposes, the District may use such funds to acquire sites for facilities of the District or to pay the principal of or interest on the Bonds, In the alternative, if available funds are sufficient from the proceeds of Bonds authorized for the above purposes and/or state and local circumstances require, the District may use such funds to acquire, construct, equip, modernize and make other capital improvements to the facilities of the District, all as the Board of Directors may determine, after holding a public hearing thereon pursuant to RCW 28A.530.020. 


It is anticipated that the District may receive funds from the State of Washington pursuant to Chapter 28A.525 RCW. To the extent that such state funds are not received timely and used to pay costs of the Improvements, the District intends to apply such state funds to construct and equip a new warehouse for District use (they put a name on what they may do with those funds instead of hiding them) and/or future school facility construction projects, including planning and design of such District facilities. Such state funds may also be applied to pay the principal of or interest on the bonds provided for herein or to make other capital improvements to the facilities of the District as the Board may determine after holding a public hearing thereon pursuant to RCW 28A.530.020. 

That's cRaZy talk right there.  Doesn't Bellingham know "The Everett Way"? They are supposed to be vague and deceptive about bond dollars so as to keep all their options open.  I guess Dr. Cohn needs to make a trip up there to sit down with their Superintendent and "school" him on not making the other districts look bad.  

I'm sure that while there were plenty who didn't want this bond to pass in Bellingham, I have a different perspective living in a district that goes out of it's way to keep the public out of their hair.  Maybe if I lived in Bellingham, I might have been on the "no" side - I haven't researched if this raised taxes or not.  But, after living here, I certainly have a much lower bar to compare bonds to in any city I might live.  I just need to ask myself, "Is this better than Everett?"   I bet that 9 times out of 10, the answer will be, "Yes".  

A shout out to my home town for respecting voters and putting students first in word AND action.