Pasco, Richland, Walla Walla residents kick off campaign to support school bonds

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 22, 2013 

Mike Miller and other volunteers promoting a $46.8 million bond in the Pasco School District have been busy as they count down the weeks until the February special election.

Miller, chairman of the Pasco Citizens for Better Schools Committee, and other volunteers asked the Pasco Chamber of Commerce to throw its support behind the bond. They prepared to approach area companies about including reminders to vote in their bill statements this month.

Miller met with a Kiwanis group and already had met with Rotarians.

"Our job is to get a 'yes' vote," he said from the conference room of his business, Moon Security, surrounded by dozens of yard signs supporting the bond.

Voters in the Pasco, Richland and Walla Walla school districts will vote on bonds worth tens of millions of dollars to build and renovate schools and conduct various other construction projects in the Feb. 12 election.

Ballots will begin appearing in voters' mailboxes this week.

Bond supporters have voiced guarded optimism that their efforts -- signs, mailers, door hangers, door-to-door visits, rallies along with other advertising and possibly phone calls to voters -- will convince people of the importance of passing them.

The Pasco School District is seeking a $46.8 million bond to build three new elementary schools and for other construction, including adding classrooms to Pasco High School and relocating New Horizons High School.

The Richland School District is asking for a $98 million bond to build two new schools, rebuild three others and pay for other projects.

The Walla Walla School District's $48 million bond would pay for an extensive renovation and modernization at Walla Walla High School.

It's against the law for school district employees to promote bonds in their district roles. That's where citizen committees come in.

The committees in the three districts have spent months gearing up for the election, recruiting volunteers to take charge of various jobs and developing strategies to convince voters of the bonds' importance.

The groups are coordinating many similar activities, such as newspaper letter-writing campaigns, promoting the bonds via Facebook, distributing yard signs and pamphlets and sending out postcards to remind people to vote.

Craig Sievertsen, co-chairman of the Citizens for Schools committee in Walla Walla, said about 400 students and community members will canvass downtown Walla Walla later this month to get out bond information.

John Deichman, co-chairman of Richland Citizens for Good Schools, and his fellow volunteers, along with sending letters to the editor and putting out signs, will be making phone calls to voters, putting door hangers on 10,000 doors in the district, organizing rallies and coordinating a joint Herald advertisement with Pasco Citizens for Better Schools.

"We've only got a month and we've got to focus on what we can get done," he said.

These efforts aren't cheap. Deichman said about $4,000 in donations will pay for the materials needed to promote the bond, and that doesn't include in-kind donations or people volunteering their time. Miller said his committee will spend anywhere between $15,000 to $25,000 total to promote the bond and Walla Walla volunteers will spend between $9,000 to $12,000.

Organizers said the cost of informing voters and securing their "yes" vote is relative to the importance of the bonds. Deichman said he expects the district would request a similar bond in the future if it's rejected, as the district still is growing and some of its schools are in need of replacement or modernization.

In Pasco, it's about avoiding a critical mass of overcrowding that could force students to attend class as late as 6 p.m. or require them to not have time off during the summer, just to make sure they have time in a classroom, Miller said.

"This isn't about building schools, it's about doing what's right for the community," he said.

There are challenges to winning the support of some voters.

Bonds require 60 percent approval to pass, a higher threshold than a simple majority. The still-improving economy is on a lot of people's minds and some don't want to pay more in taxes. Pasco and Walla Walla have seen bonds fail in the past few years, partially because the costs were too high, school officials said.

"Last year, we were crushed," Miller said of a previous Pasco bond measure's failure in 2011.

Miller said finances are a particularly big issue in Pasco, which has low property assessment values compared with other nearby school districts, which often means tax rates are higher to generate enough money for a bond.

Sievertsen said there are questions in Walla Walla about the size of the bond for the high school, why it all must be done at once and why the project is being done after 300 students from the College Place School District will begin attending their own high school in coming years.

College Place serves students through the eighth grade, but voters approved a bond last spring to build a high school and remodel a grade school.

The Richland School District has grappled with some controversial issues in the past several months, from the dispute over the possible closure of Jefferson Elementary School as part of the bond, delays in signing an agreement to operate Delta High School with the Pasco and Kennewick districts and the ongoing investigation of Superintendent Jim Busey.

Deichman said those controversies have led to questions about the district's decision-making and ability to effectively manage money.

"People even have expressed anger about (the investigation)," he said. "I'm pleading with voters to consider the bond on its own merits."

Busey, who is currently on paid administrative leave, told the Herald on Monday that the Richland district's students need good facilities to receive a quality education.

"Basically, I would be disappointed if the bond didn't pass," he said.

But promoters said they still expect the bonds to pass. The Walla Walla School Board voted a few weeks ago to return any excess bond dollars to taxpayers, and the Pasco School Board is considering spending money collected as part of residential impact fees on new construction to reduce the bond cost by up to $1 million.

"This time, I'm seeing much less negative feedback," said Bill Pennell, a volunteer with the Pasco committee who monitors online comments about the bond.

And in Richland, Deichman said the problems that arose regarding Jefferson Elementary has worked in the bond's favor, as the board revisited its decision and changed the scope of the bond proposal to keep Jefferson open.

"It made the bond better," he said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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