M and O levy blues

Sumner School District levy and bond fail the supermajority test

By Brian Beckley

The Courier-Herald

Officials in the Sumner School District said they were “stunned” last week when their maintenance and operations levy failed to get the 60 percent “supermajority” needed for passage.

According to the Pierce County Auditor's office, the levy received 3,874 “yes” votes, or 58.34 percent. The district's $88.5 million capital improvement bond also failed to receive the necessary number of votes, finishing with 52.87 percent support.

“They did get the simple majority but they appear to be on track to not get supermajority support,” district Communications Director Ann Cook said.

Should district voters fail to pass a levy before the beginning of the next school year, deep cuts could be made to many of the district's programs.

The M and O levy makes up 20 percent of the district's budget, including all after-school activities, athletics, all computers and technology and half of the transportation budget, as well as classroom teachers and paraeducators not covered by state funding, used to keep class sizes lower.

Cook said failure to approve the levy would have a “profound effect” on the district's ability to deliver educational programs come the start of the next school year.

Cook also said the impact on the budget could not be minimized through “efficiencies in staffing.”

“It's too large,” she said of the 20 percent budget hole.

According to Cook, district administrators will recommend to the board tonight, Wednesday, the levy be re-run April 25, though May and September votes are also possible. The district can run the same measure only twice in one calendar year.

Should the levy fail to be approved, deciding which programs to cut and which to keep becomes a school board decision and district staff is currently in the process of preparing a second budget document which does not include levy money.

Cook said the levy failure came as a shock to Sumner officials because of the district's history as a “high performing” district.

“We've had a very good levy/bond approval history,” Cook said.

The last time a levy failed to pass in the Sumner School District was 1994. In February of that year, the levy gained only 59.7 percent of votes, but when the same proposition was on the ballot in April, it passed with 70.3 percent.

As for the levy, a look at precinct numbers shows the neighborhoods surrounding Lakeridge Middle School, which would have been rebuilt if the bond passed, voted against the measure in the highest numbers. The southeastern corner of the district, where bond money was set to purchase land for a new school, also voted against the measure in large numbers.

Cook said the district would study the numbers deeper in the coming weeks, but administrators will recommend not re-running the bond in April.

“Our priority, clearly, is with our operating budget,” she said.

School Board President Sherm Voiles said he was “disappointed” with the results of the votes.

“The levy dollars are critical to the operation of a school district,” he said.

Voiles said he expects the board to approve a spring vote on the levy.

“If it doesn't pass in the second round it could have some very dire consequences,” he said, adding that staff layoffs were a possibility; also an option are the elimination of some sports or a switch to a pay-to-play format.

“Something would have to give in the athletic arena,” he said.

Cook said early indicators as to why the measures were defeated point to low voter turnout in the district, which was the lowest in Pierce County, excluding the Franklin Pierce School District, which conducted it's election totally by mail.

“Based on anecdotal feedback, we just don't think enough people voted,” Cook said. “The one thing I've heard over and over in the community is...‘I didn't vote.'”

Only 6,640 of the district's 24,000 registered voters cast ballots last week.

Another possibility raised throughout the district is the effect of a recent increase in postal rates. The new prices took effect Jan. 8 and Cook said one of the district's principals, who lives and votes in another district, said he had a ballot returned for improper postage.

Officials in the County Auditor's office said they had not received any complaints about postage. Countywide turnout was only 32.34 percent. February elections in 2004 and 2005 each drew a more than 40 percent of registered voters to the polls and 2002 and 2003 February elections each drew 37 percent.

In the Dieringer School District, the M and O levy passed with a 65.87 percent approval rate, but the district's $10.2 million bond measure, which was to add capacity to North Tapps Middle School and Dieringer Heights Elementary, received only 59.19 percent approval, short of the 60 percent necessary for passage.

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