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Marietta BOE discusses why school levy failed

There might be no single, unifying reason that Marietta voters rejected a proposal to fund $55 million for new school buildings, but the Marietta City Schools Board of Education spent all of a 90-minute meeting Monday night trying to figure out what went wrong.

The district’s bond levy proposal would have funded a new building complex near Washington State Community College, replacing the six old schools now used. The proposal was turned down Nov. 5, with 57.65 voting against it and 42.35 percent in favor, a conclusive verdict.

The board and administration now need to determine what to do next, and much of the discussion Monday pored over the results, trying to determine why voters rejected it and whether to give the proposal another chance.

Treasurer Frank Antill pulled up a slide comparing the precinct results from 2010, when the last big building levy proposal went to the vote, and those from Nov. 5.

“It’s very close to the same numbers in many of the precincts, and in fact only one was lower (in support of the levy) this time than in 2010,” Antill said. Of the 22 precincts in the district, only four gave the levy more than 50 percent support this year. In 2010, only five supported it.

Eric Reed, who worked on the levy promotion committee, spoke to the board during the forum portion of the meeting.

“It was discouraging to see the margin of defeat,” he said. “Maybe we need to do a better job of communicating with the community. I’ve read about districts that have had successful levies, and it needs the community to drive it. I don’t believe we are there yet; it’s the people who will ultimately drive it, but I think there is still some positive momentum.”

“We were 960 votes short, that’s pretty lopsided,” board president Doug Mallett said. The election brought out a total of 6,345 voters.

The five board members offered their experiences with voters and views on the future as the discussion went around the table.

“I live in Fearing Township, and my neighbors would have been very affected by the taxation,” board member Stacey Adams said, holding up a map and indicating the rural, farm-heavy township. “I get that, I understand it. Some areas have been hit by other things, and we need to listen to the community about that.” Fearing Township turned the levy down, with 72 percent voting against it.

Board vice president Russ Garrison, who conducted 18 public meetings on the levy proposal during September and October that lasted two hours each, said he felt the communication efforts fell short.

“Our job is to reflect the community, and we obviously didn’t do a good job of that,” he said. “Changing patterns of communication are a challenge, and we have to do better. At the meetings, there was a lot of focus (from people who attended) on details and cost, and not enough on educational values.”

The board took the unusual measure of inviting public discussion, something normally reserved for the start of its meetings. About two dozen people attended the meeting, and several of them spoke.

Mark Weihl said he applauded the effort and passion that went into the levy promotion, but the board could have recruited more supporters from the community to actively speak out for the proposal.

“You needed all hands on deck. I offered my help but didn’t hear back,” he said. “There weren’t enough people speaking pro-levy, and you needed more about the educational impact.”

Weihl encouraged the board to continue pushing.

“Think about what Warren did, and keep going back,” he said. Warren Local Schools required seven attempts before getting its bond issue passed in 2017. The board can’t have another decade-long hiatus, he said. “Look at the changes since 2010, how society has eroded,” he said.

Lisa Barth, parent of children who attend Putnam Elementary and Marietta Middle School, said she participated in the community involvement portion of the levy promotion.

“We gave our input, but it seemed like everything was already decided,” she said. “Really, it was you talking to us, that’s how people perceived it.”

Resident Tony Touschner brought up the general impact on the community of the ‘no’ vote.

“There is an effect on the number of people moving in, a negative effect on real estate,” he said.

“You can’t attract new talent when they look at the schools and say, ‘We aren’t moving here,'” Mallett said.

To complicate matters, the district has an emergency levy for the March ballot on which $2.75 million of operating funds are riding.

Garrison said the board needs to prioritize its next moves, and No. 1 on the list is getting the emergency levy passed. After that, he said, the board should begin to move on operational restructuring options “to achieve educational elements while reducing our square footage.”

The district is operating in buildings ranging from 107 to 55 years old, built to accommodate more than 4,000 students. Current enrollment is about 2,400, and the board has said that some schools will have to close.

“Then we need to take a step back and get community input,” Garrison said. “We need 60 to 80 people to go across the precincts, going through the educational aspects of the levy.”

Superintendent Will Hampton said despite the defeat he believes there is still a chance to salvage the levy proposal, but the district needs to focus on immediate priorities.

“I’m terribly disappointed in the levy results. I feel we didn’t meet with enough people,” he said. “I think we still have an opportunity. We took steps to explain the benefits; we didn’t make threats; we focused on the positives, but it didn’t sell. We have to regroup.”

Hampton agreed that the priority needs to be the March operating levy.

“If we don’t pass the emergency levy, it will be catastrophic,” he said. “We don’t want to cloud things by putting the bond levy out in March.”

The meeting closed after 90 minutes of discussion. The board is scheduled to hold its regular monthly meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

“We need to come prepared to set a direction on Thursday,” Mallett said.

Michael Kelly can be contacted at mkelly@mariettatimes.com.

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