Supporters of school bond measures in the Tri-Cities are in good spirits as ballots trickle into auditor's offices ahead of the Feb. 12 election.
Between 19 percent and 20 percent of ballots mailed to registered voters in Benton and Franklin counties have been collected as of Friday afternoon, according to election officials. The return rate is higher in Walla Walla County, at more than 27 percent.
The Richland, Pasco and Walla Walla school districts collectively are seeking almost $200 million to build new schools and renovate or replace older ones. Bond promoters said they still are campaigning, but they are cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the election.
"I'm not hearing too many who say they're voting no," said Mike Miller, chairman for Pasco Citizens for Better Schools.
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The Richland School District is seeking $98 million to build an elementary school and middle school, rebuild three older elementary schools, replace a wing of Jefferson Elementary School, replace the heating and cooling system at Chief Joseph Middle School, improve Fran Rish Stadium and find a larger home for Three Rivers HomeLink, an alternative school.
Pasco school officials want $46.8 million to pay for two elementary schools and an early learning center, as well as several other projects, such as the relocation of New Horizons High School and new science labs at Pasco High School.
Walla Walla would use its $48 million bond to modernize Walla Walla High School, upgrading classrooms in several buildings and expanding space for the arts, career and technical education and the school's fitness center.
At least 40 percent of voters who turned in ballots during the recent general election must vote in this election to validate the results. Bonds also require 60 percent voter approval.
Walla Walla Auditor Karen Martin said she didn't anticipate the Walla Walla schools having trouble with turnout.
"Our ballot drop boxes around the courthouse have been pretty active," she said.
Benton County Auditor Brenda Chilton said turnout during so-called "spring elections" usually is low compared to the more high-profile general election, but she still anticipated turnout being high enough to validate the results for the Richland bond.
"I never remember a time not meeting the threshold," she said.
Franklin County Auditor Matt Beaton said turnout is actually behind several percentage points from the last spring election his office handled last April. He urged people to review and fill out their ballots and turn them in so their vote can be counted.
Miller said his group is organizing rallies around Pasco in coming days to show support for the Pasco bond. Radio and TV ads are also broadcasting in the community.
John Deichman, one of the chairmen for Richland Citizens for Good Schools, said people are still asking for yard signs, though his group has run out of them. He's also seeing quickly-organized rallies supporting the bond around Richland.
"I'm seeing enthusiastic signs I wouldn't usually see this early on," he said.