On the edge: Bond survey results show Snoqualmie Valley School District has work ahead

Snoqualmie Valley School Board members didn’t get the clear direction they hoped for from a formal telephone survey conducted May 28 through June 2, but they now have a lot more information.

Results of the survey were presented at the board’s June 12 meeting, and showed that survey respondents liked many components of a possible $224 million comprehensive bond, but they liked the cost of it much less. Overall, 67 percent of the 400 people surveyed said they supported the bond proposal.

However, the support dropped to 57 percent once they learned their estimated individual tax impact — about $2.25 per thousand dollars of assessed property value.

“That tells me that this is doable, but it’s not a lock,” said Ian Stewart, vice president of the survey firm EMC Research, “and it’s going to take a lot of work to make that happen.”

The drop in support was not a clear sign the bond would fail, because the survey results had a margin of error that could be as much as 4.9 percent more or less than the reported result. School facilities bonds require a 60 percent vote of approval to pass in Washington. Snoqualmie Valley voters have not passed a facilities bond for anything but new portable classrooms since approving a $53.5 million bond in 2003 to build Twin Falls Middle School.

The cost, presented in the survey as about $775 in additional taxes for a $375,000 home, has been an obstacle for the board in its bond discussions for almost a year now. Board members, staff, parents and other members of the public have commented at meetings and in correspondence that voters will reject such an expensive proposal. Nearly equal numbers have said the end results of the bond, primarily a new elementary school, remodeled high school and potential restoration of the SMS campus to use as a middle school over the next eight years, are worth it now and will only get more expensive in the future.

Bare bones

To gain more voters’ perspectives, the board authorized the survey, and required it to include a question about a $130 million “bare bones” alternative bond for new elementary and middle schools, both on Snoqualmie Ridge.

Stewart seemed surprised by the response to the smaller bond, at an estimated average cost of $400 annually.

“We actually (got) more preference for the comprehensive measure,” he told the board. “What this is telling you is that dropping the price tag doesn’t really help us much, because, what was in the larger measure was actually very attractive to people, in general.”

Respondents were asked about their support of the individual components of the comprehensive bond, listed in order of strongest support: fixing or replacing leaky roofs districtwide; up-to-date classrooms; replacing old heating, cooling, water and septic systems; improving school safety and security; flood and earthquake safety measures at Mount Si High School; restoring a middle school to Snoqualmie; expanding the multipurpose room at Snoqualmie Elementary; a new elementary on Snoqualmie Ridge; a rebuild and remodel of Mount Si High School, and a new preschool. The state-required preschool got a 47 percent level of support, and was the only component to rank below 60 percent.

Stewart noted an important demographic trend in the bond support, too. The highest levels of support came from men and women ages 18 to 49, and their support did not drop as much when the cost information was revealed, 75 and 64 percent for men, 85 and 78 percent for women. These voters, Stewart said, turn out in greater numbers for general elections in November, than they do for other elections throughout the year. The over-50 voters started out at significantly lower levels of support, 54 percent for men, 57 percent for women, and both groups dropped to 45 percent after learning the cost.

Where is support

Geographically, support was strongest in North Bend, where 42 percent of respondents lived, followed by Snoqualmie with 32 percent of respondents, and what EMC called the Northwest, the section of the district that includes Fall City and small portions of Sammamish and Redmond. North Bend initially reported 70 percent support for the bond, Snoqualmie, 69 and the Northwest 56 percent. After learning the cost, North Bend’s support dropped to 58 percent, Snoqualmie’s to 61 and the Northwest’s to 50.

Other findings of the survey showed that 65 percent of respondents thought the district was heading in the “right direction,” 83 percent of the 129 parents asked said their children’s schools were either excellent or good, and 74 percent said the same about the job that teachers were doing. People gave the district lower marks for its spending; 41 percent said the district did a good or excellent job of spending tax dollars responsibly, and on how fairly the district distributed funds across the district, only 51 percent gave a positive rating.

Following Stewart’s report, several board members asked about other districts he worked with, and his opinions on how their bonds succeeded. He said that all districts need “a strong connection with the community,” and said some districts have a volunteer campaigning organization supporting them full time. Voter outreach and education are essential, too, he said, again referring to the survey respondents’ ranking of the importance of various bond components.

“Your job, as a district, is to promote as much information as you can about why this is important,” he said. “Your list is right here. Your job is to make sure this information gets out.”

Recalling a previous meeting on the bond, in which many staff members gave negative feedback, board member Marci Busby asked Stewart, “Have you ever heard of a district passing a bond when their staff was not on board?”

In response, he paused, laughed once, and said “No.”

Board member Tavish MacLean asked Stewart if any survey results were clear indicators not to proceed with a bond proposal. Stewart didn’t specify any, but reminded the board to consider the demographics of its strongest supporters, in general women, and voters under age 49.

“Any time the turnout goes down, you’re going to have a larger percentage of those over 50 voting,” he added.

What’s next

Board President Geoff Doy wrapped up the discussion by asking Superintendent Joel Aune to take some time to consider the results, since they’d just been delivered that day, and come back to the board at its next meeting with a recommendation.

Aune agreed with Doy, saying “We’ve got some work to do around the area of staff support,” and expressed concern about a rush to a November election.

“I just don’t see November as possible,” he said. “The problem is, as you well now, we’re at a crisis point on the elementary.”

Elementary enrollment in the district has grown faster than at any other level in the 6,000-student district. That growth, combined with state class size requirements and the elimination of half-day Kindergarten in favor of full-day Kindergarten starting by 2018, means the district must open a sixth elementary school by the start of the 2016-17 school year. The district has already contracted with TCF Architects to design the new 29-classroom school, with plans modified from Cascade View Elementary School.

When the board first began discussing the bond, they had hopes of opening the sixth elementary by the 2015-16 school year. Staff said the district would have needed a successful bond in April to meet that timeline.

The district paid $15,000 for the survey.

School bond facts

Proposed bond components:

Build sixth elementary school and a centralized preschool on Snoqualmie Ridge, $35 million, opening in 2016-17

Rebuild/remodel Mount Si High School, $170 million, opening in 2021 at a capacity of 2,100, but with enough space by 2018 to bring the freshmen back onto the main campus and restore the freshman campus to use as a middle school.

Repairs throughout the district totaling $20 million, including roof replacements at North Bend, Snoqualmie and Fall City Elementaries and part of MSHS, new boilers at SES and MSHS, and a new expanded septic system at FCE.

Other costs:

Not counting the costs of  voter guides and other campaign activities, the district must pay a fee to put the bond on a ballot. The cost, estimated from 2014 figures would be:

If it runs in November, 2014 - $32,800

If it runs in February, 2015 - $58,500


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