The Longview School District will put off discussion of a third facilities bond until after its February election for its operations and education levy.
“Our efforts right now need to be focused on having success with the levy request,” Superintendent Dan Zorn said at a school board meeting last week.
Still, the district is still trying to determine why the $119 million facilities bond failed in the Nov. 5 general election, getting 58% approval but about 200 votes shy of attaining the 60% supermajority needed for passage. The preliminary message from those with their ears to the ground: The bond simply had too big a price tag for this community.
Nevertheless, school officials were pleased they came close.
“If this were any other kind of election it would have been a landslide ... but that’s the way it goes and we need to regroup,” Zorn said. “We still need to figure out long term ways to get those needs addressed, but we will figure it out after the levy.”
The bond got at least 60% approval in 12 of 32 voter precincts within school district boundaries. The measure failed to get even a simple majority in four precincts, all of them in West Longview and beyond: Bakers, Coal Creek, Ocean Beach and Stella.
Had the bond won even a simple majority in the Coal Creek and Stella precincts, the measure would have come within a whisker of passing.
The bond would have paid to replace Mint Valley and Northlake elementary schools, upgrade Longview Memorial Stadium and undertake safety improvements districtwide. It would have cost the owner of a $200,000 home $176 annually for 21 years.
The ballot measure was the second time the district has tried to pass nine-figure facilities bond. The $121 million bond it proposed in 2017 fell by a similar amount, even though the voter turnout for the bond election this year was nearly 30 percent greater. As they did this year, a simple majority of voters in the Stella and Coal Creek rejected the 2017 bond.
Summer O’Neill is the Democratic precinct captain for Coal Creek Precinct and chair of Cowlitz County Democrats. She said she has heard from the community that increasing property taxes are at the root of the bond’s failure.
“Particularly as property taxes have increased with the evaluation of our homes, it’s become a much tougher sell to get voters to voluntarily increase them some more,” O’Neill said.
She said incomes are stagnant, and she pointed out that the largest block of voters are retirees who likely are on a fixed income.
“They’re getting painted into a corner,” O’Neill said.
There’s also a general lack of awareness of the conditions in the schools, O’Neill said, but she said the bond was just too large.
“People aren’t conformable with the size and scope of the projects,” O’Neill said. “It makes sense from the school district’s perspective to do it all at once. ... But it’s too much for our voters to take all at once.”
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Scott Schill, the Republican precinct captain for Coal Creek Precinct, said he felt that the support was there, but the district didn’t get the word out well enough.
“I didn’t see any advertising about it or anything, or signs to support it, and I think that’s very important if you’re trying to get something to pass,” Schill said.
School board member Don Wiitala said Thursday that he thought the problem came down to communicating the district’s long term facility needs, especially since it’s been nearly 20 years since the district passed a facilities bond.
“In the mid-2000s, when the economy went in tank, there wasn’t much support and we didn’t want to go to the community that was hurting at the same time,” Wiitala said. “But the facilities kept wearing down and wearing out. Personally (this year’s failure) was somewhat frustrating because the feedback we were getting was very positive.”
Robert Von Roch, the Democratic precinct captain for the Douglas Precinct, said he thought the economy undercut the bond. The district is centered on the low-income Highlands neighborhood. The bond got 51% approval there.
“People are taking stock of what they’re having to spend,” Von Roch said. “Cost of living has been going up. People are bracing for that and not wanting to have additional burdens on them right at this time, and that plays a role in it.”
He pointed to the passage of Initiative 976, which caps annual state and local car tab fees at $30, as an indication that there’s also an overall desire to reduce taxes (About 72 percent of Cowlitz voters supported the anti-tax measure.) And he said the district needs to pare down its proposals.
“It’s going to take a lot more communication, and not being so ambitious in what they’re wanting to accomplish,” Von Roch said.
Another factor in the bond failure, Von Roch speculated, may be in Kelso, where unexpectedly high construction costs forced school officials to abandon its plan to replace Beacon Hill Elementary School with voter approved bond money. (A big cause of Kelso’s unforeseen costs were poor soil conditions; Longview has tried to dodge that surprise by doing soil testing already.)
“Even though it wasn’t a Longview issue, people think about that when they go to vote, with Longview and Kelso being neighbors,” Von Roch said. “The district needs to re-evaluate what are their real top priorities and see how to make it work in a smaller frame, maybe do it in phases.”
However, for now, the school board is putting off discussion on how to proceed with a new bond plan. It needs to replace its current operations and educational programs levy, which will expire next year and which is the district’s second largest source of funding.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the board decided to put the levy on the February ballot, though it has not yet decided on the amount, rate or the length of the levy. Another board workshop on the matter is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday in the district office board room.
For now, board members say they’re buoyed by the outcome of the bond election, even if it fell just short.
School board President C.J. Nickerson said 58% approval is a strong showing of community support, “a fact we shouldn’t lose track of.”