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Bond supporters shocked by loss

Tuesday’s high school school bond defeat was a blow to the people who have supported the effort, but not a surprise to those who opposed it.

The first time on the ballot, in March, the measure received 53.4 percent of the votes, a majority, but not a supermajority of 60 percent, as required by state law. Supporters were down but not out, and have spent the last two months trying to round up a few more yes votes.

Their efforts fell far short of that goal. The $45 million bond lost by an even greater margin in its second try. This time around the yes votes totalled just a hair short of 50 percent — .4998 to be exact. Of 6,546 ballots contributing to the total, 3,272 were yes votes, 3,374 were no votes. While they hoped to get at least 400 more yes votes to put it over the top, supporters lost 485 yes votes since last time.

Foes claim

failure to listen

Bond opponent Joyce King said she is all for kids, but she felt the school board withheld vital information from the voters, such as falling enrollment and figures from a Web site which she said showed the high school project cost to be much greater than other school construction projects.

A long-time teacher and now a tutor, King said she would like to see the district make some improvements to the current high school, such as increased maintenance, computer labs and structural improvements to bring it up to code. She suggests relieving the cramped class space at the high school by returning to a junior high system.

“I’m a big advocate for education,” she said, “but not for building these ‘Taj Mahals’.”

School bus driver Steve Schulz was not surprised the bond failed. He had attended the school board meeting following the last bond vote, and was frustrated to see the board approve putting the remodel plan back to a vote without taking into consideration any of the concerns expressed at the meeting.

“For them to not listen is irresponsible,” he said. “The arrogance of the school board has galvanized the no votes. They have burned their bridges.”

Schulz said the board faces two hurdles in passing the bond: mending relations with the public and selling the bond on whatever merits they can.

“They need to do some soul searching, and admit they made a mistake,” he said. “It’s going to be hard for them to regain trust.”

Sports, arts additions criticized

Another criticism leveled by bond opponents was the inclusion of a sports complex in the high school remodel plan. They wanted Memorial Stadium to be preserved as the playing field of choice.

“It’s a tough one,” Jeff Stone, high school athletic director said. “To be so close, and still lose.” He felt improving Memorial Stadium was not a good option.

“With it ( Memorial Stadium) off campus, the high school can’t use it every day,” he said. “It makes sense to have home field here.”

A new complex attached to the high school campus would also have been used by JROTC, marching band, PE classes and other school activities.

Stone didn’t feel the planned $5 million complex was asking too much.

“We’re just looking for some playing fields with better surfaces,” he said. He noted Oak Harbor is the only school left in its division that has not upgraded its facilities.

“I don’t think we’re asking for anything other schools don’t have,” he said.

Another thing that “other” schools have is an auditorium, or performing arts center, which can also be used by community groups. Opponents cited the proposed performing arts center as an unnecessary part of the plan.

Those in the community who have been working to find a home for the arts in Oak Harbor felt the loss keenly.

“I’m bummed,” Tony Steadman, Whidbey Arts Foundation member said.

Steadman Thursday sent a letter to WAF board members, saying this vote had been their “last, best chance.”

The group has been trying for several years to secure funding and a site for a performing arts center in Oak Harbor. At their own expense they hired a theater design firm to assess community needs and come up with a plan suitable for inclusion in the high school project.

Steadman didn’t think the performing arts center or the sports complex were “extras.”

“I don’t know why they (opponents) don’t see that full education calls for all that,” he said.

Voter apathy runs rampant

Citizens for Better Schools member Joe Mossolino was surprised to learn on Friday that over 600 absentee voters the group had identified as “education friendly” had not yet mailed in their ballots.

The auditor’s office reports that out of 8,756 ballots mailed out, 5,119 were returned.

“The apathy was truly a surprise,” he said.

He suggested a litmus test for those opposed to future bonds: “I would ask them, ‘Did you vote, attend meetings or open houses? Have you visited the site’?”

“It was a good plan,” he said. He felt the school board did their homework and came up with the best, most affordable plan.

One of the main campaign slogans was, “The right plan, the right time,” but the district will not be able to put the bond issue before voters again until February 2004.

Supporters look ahead

Kathy Chalfant was disappointed in the loss both as a school board member and as a parent volunteer with Citizens for Better Schools.

“This has been one of the more painful elections,” she said. While the board had endured heavy criticism for putting the same proposal back to the voters, Chalfant said they had always considered that to be their best option, and it’s one that is common among school districts.

“What we’re trying to do is make things better for kids,” she said.

She said the biggest surprise was the drop in yes voters.

“It’s sad that people didn’t rally. We’ll have to look at why that happened,” she said.

Lynn Goebel, Citizens for Better Schools organizer, called the loss heartbreaking.

She said the group went all out for the March bond vote, spending $11,000 in community donations on campaign signs, ads and information distribution. A local business donated office space for the campaign headquarters. This time around Goebel said they spent only about $3,000, but put in more time in the trenches. The group spent the last two weekends knocking on doors, trying to drum up support.

“Obviously the people who voted no felt just as passionately,” Goebel said.

Schools Superintendent Rick Schulte said he expects the board will examine all options again, as well as looking at new options. They may also consider doing a survey to identify key issues that affect voter opinions.

Whatever course they choose from here, further bond discussion might have to wait until after the board gets through budget and staffing issues.

“In any event, the high school will continue to age and its systems and infrastructure will continue to deteriorate with time,” Schulte said. “It is unacceptable to do nothing or to wait until things get very bad. We will have to see whether we can develop a renovation and financing plan that will satisfy 60 percent or more of the voters.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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