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Seattle Schools Hope New Levy Path Pays Off

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When it comes to raising money, the Seattle public schools are taking an old saying to heart: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Four failed attempts to pass a school-construction bond over the past two years have not dashed the district's hopes of raising $330 million for renovations, additions, and new buildings.

Next month, the schools will take a different tack.

They will ask Seattle voters to approve a school levy, which requires a lower total voter turnout than bonds.

A levy would not buy as much--because the money is collected over a longer period of time--but officials believe its prospects for approval are better.

The school levy will also make a solo appearance on the ballot. In past elections, the school bond competed with proposals to raise money for such city services as libraries and police.

The schools, however, will still have to overcome what has become a headache for many districts in the state: a supermajority rule. Both bonds and levies must win 60 percent of the vote to pass.

While 40 percent of the voters from the most recent general election must turn out for a school bond to be approved, the amount drops to 24 percent for levies.

District officials said they need money now to update old, cramped schools and build new ones. Most schools waiting for work are between 69 and 102 years old.

"We have worn-out electrical, heating, and ventilation systems, and leaky roofs," said Dorothy Dubia, the communications director for the 46,000-student district. "And, in some cases, we're not up to earthquake standards."

'Unfair' Rule?

Seattle is not the only school system in the state that has had trouble mustering support for its capital projects.

The Tacoma district, for example, tried twice last year to pass a $45 million building and technology bond.

On one attempt, the measure failed by a tiny fraction, said Gay Campbell, the community-relations director for the 32,000-student district.

Many school officials lay part of the blame on the law requiring schools--but not all other public agencies in the state--to get supermajority approval from taxpayers.

"It just seems unfair to districts that we're saddled with a rule that others don't have" to follow, Ms. Campbell said. Under the law, "the person with a 'no' vote counts more."

Ms. Dubia said Seattle officials are asking the state legislature to let voters decide whether schools should be allowed to try passing measures by a simple majority, so the district might avoid trouble in the future. Several state education groups made the same case to lawmakers last year without success.

"By any measure, a 59 percent vote is a landslide," Bruce Colwell, the president of the Seattle Education Association, said of the district's near-miss on last November's bond issue when voters rejected the measure despite a record number of "yes" votes cast.

Cost and Effect

Superintendent William Kendrick pushed the Seattle school board to hold the vote next month, even though it would be on the heels of a fourth defeat.

He has the backing of the union and the city's business community.

In addition to switching to a levy, the superintendent is trying to allay public concerns about runaway spending by appointing an oversight committee of architects and finance and construction experts to control costs, Ms. Dubia said.

The district estimates that it has about $700 million in construction and maintenance needs, she added.

The schools originally had asked voters for close to that amount in early attempts to pass a bond but later cut the figure in half to keep the tax rate down.

The district has proposed building six schools, modernizing 10, and adding classroom space or other facilities to several campuses.

One high school that officials had planned to spruce up was in such disrepair when it was inspected that the district wants it closed, Ms. Dubia said.

Teachers are campaigning for the levy and telling residents and local leaders about poor classroom conditions, Mr. Colwell said.

"It's hard to find new ways to motivate and inspire people" to get out the vote, he said. "But if we don't pass it this time, it's probably going to be a long time before we have an opportunity again."

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