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Election 2007: Simple levy majority on ballot

Oak Harbor’s history of passing school levies has been poor, with only four of 20 proposals winning voter approval since 1968.

Now there’s a resolution facing voters in the Nov. 6 election that would eliminate the 60 percent “supermajority” levy approval requirement. Instead, levies could be approved with 50 percent plus one of the votes cast.

While that lowers the bar to pass levies, school officials aren’t planning to change how they form and advertise levy propositions to the community.

“Any proposal for a tax has to meet the high expectations for the community,” said Oak Harbor Superintendent Rick Schulte. He said the school district has an obligation to inform the community and push a reasonable, well-detailed proposal for the community to consider.

A 50 percent bar doesn’t guarantee success for levies in Oak Harbor. Schulte said of the 16 failed levies the school district has run since 1968, half of them didn’t garner 50 percent of the vote.

“Our main point about the simple majority is that it is fair,” Schulte said. If measures can be passed by a 50 percent majority to fund Qwest Field and a prison, than the same standard should apply to school district levies, he reasons.

It requires an amendment to the state constitution to change the majority requirement. The Legislature approved the resolution and it goes to the voters in the November election. In Island County, most people already have their mail-in ballots.

In addition to allowing a simple majority, the resolution would eliminate the participation requirement needed to validate the election. At present, at least 40 percent of the number of people who voted in the last general election must vote in a levy election for validation.

The resolution doesn’t cover bond issues, which pay for capital projects like Oak Harbor’s new Wildcat Memorial Stadium and the high school renovation project. Bond issues will still require 60 percent approval from voters.

The Oak Harbor School District passed a math levy in 1992, a pair of levies in 2001 and a renewal levy in 2005. The school district will take another levy to the voters in 2009.

In Coupeville, school district voters have passed every maintenance and operation levy in recent history. The school district is at the maximum it can legally ask for by law and recently approved a rollback to meet requirements.

Candidate

views differ

While voters consider changing the requirements to approve levies, they will also decide on a contested school board race. David Sherman and Bill Burnett are competing for an open seat on the board.

Burnett has mixed feelings about the simple majority proposal for levies. He would have preferred to have language in the proposal requiring levy proposals to appear on general election ballots. That way there would be a high voter turnout and more of a consensus about a school district proposal.

He also had concerns that the simple majority would shift more of the responsibility for funding schools from the state level to the local level.

Sherman supports the simple majority proposal. He said most such measures ultimately pass, and that the school district would save time and money if they pass the first time.

When asked about eliminating the validation requirement, he didn’t realize there was one.

There are a number of issues that are important to both candidates.

Burnett wants to improve communication in the district. He wants to see school board meetings and committee meetings televised, which is similar to the city council. He wants the school district to publish a voter’s pamphlet during levy and bond elections. He said that would make the school district much more consistent with open government.

“You guys are really doing your best to control information rather than sharing information with the community,” Burnett said.

He would also use local levy dollars to provide additional services to help students struggling in math and science. He originally suggested a voucher program parents could use to hire tutors. However, people who talked to him were afraid of the word voucher and he adjusted his idea.

He said the community should be looking into such options on a local level.

Sherman said he wants to focus on improved student learning with existing resources, but admits he needs to learn more about what the school district is doing to improve learning.

Sherman also wants to study ways to increase the state money that flows into Oak Harbor schools and decrease the “unfunded mandates” that come down from the Legislature.

The budget needs to be examined to ensure it’s balanced.

“The 08-09 budget needs to be looked at differently,” Sherman said, complaining that balancing the budget depends on what you’re not going to fund.

He too would work to improve communications between the school district and the community.

Burnett and Sherman were the two winners from the August primary. They beat out restaurant owner Frank Pulu.

There is one other open school board position on the ballot. Peter Hunt is running unopposed. Voters have until Nov. 6 to postmark their ballots.

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