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School tech levy sinks at polls

The $8.9 million measure earns just 43 percent support, an unprecedented failure.

An $8.9 million levy to improve technology in Bainbridge Island public schools failed miserably at the polls Tuesday.

Unofficial final returns showed the levy earning just 43 percent support, with some 7,400 votes counted. It was the worst showing by a special levy on Bainbridge Island in more than a decade, and believed to be the first school levy to go down in perhaps 30 years.

“Obviously, we need to acknowledge the reality of the outcome, and the message communicated,” Superintendent Ken Crawford said. “I think the message is that that level of technology is one that the community is not willing and/or able to support.

“At the same time, I’m very proud of the board for having brought to the community a measure that would have placed our systems at a state-of-the-current-art level. I don’t think we should apologize for wanting to do the very best for our staff and students.”

Susan Sivitz, president of the school board, expressed disappointment in the results, after four years of study and a number of public meetings.

“The voter at this point said a resounding ‘no,’” Sivitz said. “So my theory would be that there’s a disconnect between our perception of the need for technology as it can enhance the educational experience, and the voter’s perception of the need for technology.”

The four-year levy would have funded the purchase of new computers and related instructional gear, as well as some building infrastructure improvements to support the equipment.

But the levy faced organized opposition, with Pleasant Beach resident Thomas Hemphill and several other individuals sending out mailings and placing roadside signs urging the levy’s defeat.

“The Bainbridge citizens have spoken, (that) now is the time to exercise fiscal restraint,” Hemphill said, after results were posted on the county website Tuesday evening.

In his literature, Hemphill suggested that he would support a levy at a lesser amount, perhaps $3.5-4 million.

Tuesday evening, he renewed that commitment.

“We would be at the top of the list to say yes, you’ve got our support,” he said.

Will Jones, another opponent, said the district should time its levies to allow one to expire before a new one goes before voters, to ease the burden on taxpayers. He cited the timing of the Bremerton school district, where a funding measure succeeded Tuesday.

“The concern is that (Bainbridge) continues to layer, and pour more and more on, without looking at how it affects the citizens,” Jones said.

The Bainbridge district is poised to go before voters again this fall, with a capital bond of perhaps $40 million for school construction. Hemphill said officials should lower the bond amount before it goes to the ballot.

“Instead of talking about $40 million, they need to be talking about something a whole lot more reasonable than that,” he said. “We can exercise fiscal restraint, and have excellence in our public education.”

Crawford agreed that district officials need to consider the “too much” threshold, but argued that the tech levy was not out of line with what other districts are presenting.

Sivitz said that because of how the state funds public education, the district had no alternative but a special levy to fund technology improvements.

She said that while other districts around the state are considering building closures and staff layoffs, the Bainbridge district has not had to consider such cuts because of “prudent fiscal management.”

“I guess we hide the pain a little better than the other districts do, because of the industriousness of our staff and administrators,” she said. “People assume we have money that we don’t have, but it’s not there.”

Crawford said the district has significant technology needs beyond education, and those won’t go away even if voters are leery of introducing new computers and instruction systems in the classroom. He also said it is incumbent on the district to keep an up-to-date computer workstation on the desk of every teacher.

“We have to remember that this is a $30 million a year business with nearly 500 employees,” he said, citing billing, payroll and other systems that must stay current to keep the district running. “Anymore,” he said, “those are fixed costs.”

The district budget includes exactly $11,300 per year for technology upgrades, Crawford said, which “isn’t going to take us very far into the current century.”

While some donations come in through private fund-raising, Crawford said that has created disparities between schools and classrooms. The district needs to ensure that future donations are allocated fairly.

In the meantime, he said, it may make sense for the district to simply discard some of its older classroom computers to make the technology deficiencies more readily apparent.

“When you have an Apple II sitting in the classroom,” Crawford said, “it gives a false impression of adequacy.”

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