Pasco’s school bond passed by 7 votes. Meet the group that helped push it across the finish line

Volunteers from Pasco Citizens for Better Schools logged thousands of hours and raised thousands of dollars this year with a single goal — to pass the nearly $100 million bond for more classroom space.
Volunteers from Pasco Citizens for Better Schools logged thousands of hours and raised thousands of dollars this year with a single goal — to pass the nearly $100 million bond for more classroom space. Pasco Citizens for Better Schools

You probably saw their yard signs, their fliers or their social media posts.

Perhaps you answered your phone or a knock at your door and heard their message about Pasco School District’s overcrowding — and the need for a $99.5 million bond.

In the months leading up to the Nov. 7 election — and the weeks immediately after, as the results hung on just a few votes — volunteers from Pasco Citizens for Better Schools logged thousands of hours and raised thousands of dollars with a single goal: passing the bond.

They were successful. The bond won approval last month, thanks in no small part to the group’s elbow grease and shoe leather.

Their work didn’t go unnoticed.

“The district is very grateful to the citizens committee for all of the time and effort they put into (the measure),” Superintendent Michelle Whitney said in a statement.

“The projects included in this bond will help the district alleviate some of the overcrowding at our schools and provide the best learning environment possible for our students,” she said.

For committee members, the effort was worth it.

“I can’t stress enough how essential this bond was,” said Marcia Stillwell, who led the group. “To finally be on a path toward solving those problems feels really good.”

Explosive enrollment growth

The Pasco School District has seen explosive enrollment growth during the past decade, stretching capacity and stressing facilities.

The bond will help address that by paying for two new elementary schools, a new middle school and rebuilding Stevens Middle school, plus some other projects. It’ll cost property owners an estimated 59 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $118 annually for a $200,000 home.

McLoughlin School Portables
McLoughlin Middle School holds nearly 1,200 seventh- and eight-grade students. The Pasco school is home to more than 30 portable classrooms, according to district information. File Tri-City Herald

Committee members faced some particular challenges.

Bond proposals, unlike some other kinds of measures, require supermajority approval to pass. That means 60 percent of those casting ballots must agree, instead of the usual 50 percent.

The district also was coming off a recent bond failure. In February, a $69.5 million proposal fell short at the ballot box. That measure included two new elementary schools, rebuilding Stevens and some other projects.

Stillwell stepped into Pasco Citizens for Better Schools’ top leadership position this summer, in time for the new bond.

A team of four to eight core volunteers worked on the campaign daily, with as many as 120 people helping at different points throughout.

Some — like Stillwell, a mother of five who teaches math in the district — are Pasco parents and educators. Others are community members who simply wanted to help.

pasco fliers
Pasco Citizens for Better Schools mailed about 2,500 fliers and knocked on about 3,000 doors. Pasco Citizens for Better Schools

In school bond and levy elections, it falls to volunteers like them to promote and persuade. Under state election law, school districts are allowed to provide information but they can’t campaign.

As the election approached, Pasco Citizens for Better Schools mailed about 2,500 fliers and knocked on about 3,000 doors.

The committee also arranged for robo-calls and turned to social media.

“Have you ever wondered what would happen if you stacked all the portables in the Pasco School District on top of each other?” the group wrote in one post. “Of course you have! The summit of Portable Mountain would be about as high as the summit of Badger Mountain (although climbing through portables would be much less scenic).”

Stillwell was feeling confident. Overcrowding in the district is such a significant issue that failure didn’t seem an option.

But when initial results came back on Election Night, the bond was falling short. It had 58 percent approval — 2 percent shy of what was needed.

“I was in shock,” Stillwell said.

Something they could do

Over the next several days, however, that feeling gave way to hope and resolve.

The bond eventually pulled ahead after more ballots were counted. Then, it dipped back down again.

It was a roller coaster ride, with a razor-thin margin.

It became clear that the outcome could hang on 100 or so challenged ballots — votes that were submitted, but that were questioned by county election officials.

pasco ballots
Pasco Citizens for Better Schools posted this series of photos on its Facebook page to show voters how to fill out their ballots. Pasco Citizens for Better Schools

In elections, some number of ballots typically end up challenged, largely for issues such as a missing or mismatched signature. They’re only counted if the question is cleared up.

Committee leaders, buoyed by the fact there was still something they could do, requested the challenged ballot list from the county auditor.

Those lists are public and don’t indicate how each person voted, just that their ballot had a problem.

The committee identified likely “yes” voters on the list, and, in some cases, made contact — ensuring the voter knew the options for fixing their ballot challenge.

Volunteers even delivered some signature forms.

All that is proper and legal — and not unprecedented in high profile or particularly close races.

Ashley Heyen, Franklin County’s election administrator, said it’s not uncommon for her office to get requests for challenged ballot lists.

stevens bus
Stevens Middle School will be replaced as part of the bond package. File Tri-City Herald

In the midst of that challenged ballot work, the committee also raised more than $2,200 toward covering a recount, if needed.

Its total fundraising for the election was $6,545, plus about $3,500 in carryover. Leftover money will stay in the committee’s coffers for future campaigns.

In the end, the bond prevailed by seven votes — the results finalized on Nov. 28.

“It’s definitely a relief,” Stillwell said. “As a parent and a teacher, I’m very aware of how much we needed this bond.”

Changing lives

Like many of the Pasco Citizens volunteers, Stillwell’s own kids won’t directly benefit from its projects — they’ll be too old for the new schools by the time they open.

But, when you work on something like this, “You really have to have a long-term vision of what the community needs,” she said. “You have to be in it for the long haul.”

The results show that “every vote really does count. A lot of people get worked up during presidential elections and big elections like that. But, here, at the local level, they really matter. We won by seven votes. Seven votes is two or three families. If you tell two friends, and everyone remembers to vote, you have the power to change an election,” she said.

The bond was important, Stillwell said. It was critical.

“It really will change the lives of people and families in our community,” she said.

Stillwell and fellow volunteers had a small gathering recently to celebrate the bond passage. But they’re not resting on the win, they’re getting back to work.

Pasco Citizens for Better Schools’ next project is helping promote the district’s upcoming levy, which goes to a vote in February.

Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529, @SaraTCHerald