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Update: Mercer Island School District Avoids Voters' Pamphlet

The school board voted against publicizing voter information about a $196 million construction bond in the King County Elections Voters' Pamphlet, saying it preferred to disseminate the information by other means.

(Ed. Note: This story was updated at 2 p.m. Friday with new information relating to the  placing pro- and con-statements in the Voters' Pamphlet in years past, and a clarification from MISD Superintendent Gary Plano)

A divided Mercer Island School Board last night decided to not publish information in the King County local voters' pamphlet about that will come before voters in April.

The board voted, 3-2, against spending the $3,000 that King County Elections would bill the district to publish an explanation of the construction bond and offer opposing viewpoints, for and against, on why the bond should be approved on the April 17 special election ballot. Supporters say the bond to rebuild all of 's aging K-8 schools is needed to address overcrowding and programming needs to maintain the high level of education on Mercer Island, while those opposed say the bond should be narrowly focused on solving overcrowding primarily by building a fourth elementary school on an unidentified property. Board President Janet Frohnmayer, Board Vice President Adair Dingle and Director Pat Braman were all opposed to the motion.

Director Dave Myerson, who proposed publishing the information in the voter pamphlet, said the guide's explanation of measures and "pro" and "con" statements were persuasive, and a relatively inexpensive way to inform the public, given the $30,000 cost to place the measure on the ballot.

"It's a $200 million bond," he said. "I thought (the voter pamphlet) was worth it."

In primary and general elections, governments that put measures on the ballot are required to provide a ballot title and explanation of the measure and are charged for the production of the voter guides.

But they are not required to submit pro and con statements and rebuttals.

Special elections, however, are different because the guides are not automatically produced and governments are not required to participate in them. 

MISD Superintendent Gary Plano said the school district has never placed information in the voters' pamphlet in the five years he's led the school district. He added the that the school district's newsletter, District News, could instead be legally used to give local voters information in this way, and is already accounted for in the budget.

Based on assurances from other members in the community, Plano later stated during the discussion that the school district has never participated in the voter guide for special elections where the school district was required to pay for its publication.

In response to questions from Mercer Island Patch, Elections spokesperson Kim van Ekstrom confirmed Friday that the in the 1994 General Election, the Mercer Island School District placed an not only an explanation — as required — but also appointed pro and con committees and submitted statements for each side. (see an image of the 1994 Voters' Pamphlet entry attached to the right of this story).

The 1994 bond, which borrowed $16,400,000 to modernize 's elementary schools, passed with 61.4 percent approval.

Executive Director Dean Mack pledged that the next edition of the school district's newsletter, which is published quarterly and expected to be sent to every Island household in a few weeks, would be largely devoted to offering strictly factual information about the bond measure. 

"The newsletter will not be promotional," he said.

Citing state budget cuts and the need to preserve every dollar possible, Braman and Frohnmayer opposed filing information in the voter pamphlet. Both agreed that breaking the tradition of not particpating in the voter guide was unnecessary and Braman said she feared that board involvement in publishing an explanation could expose the school district to potential lawsuits. She also maintained that more harm than good would come from publishing supportive and opposing viewpoints.

"I think we should be responsible in every way possible," she said. "Rather than risk more inaccurate info to get out there, I would rather avoid it entirely."

Frohnmayer also felt that guide wasn't necessary to inform the public discussion.

"In our community it's not very hard to figure out the pros and cons," she said. "I just don't feel like people are unaware of the ideas in favor of the bond (or opposed)." 

Board Vice President Adair Dingle said the guide didn't provide enough information about the bond or allow enough room for a substantive debate, and said she personally found the voters' pamphlet unhelpful.

"I believe a responsible voter will investigate this on their own," she said.

Director Brian Emanuels, who also served as a member of the facilities committee and supported placing the bond on the ballot, disagreed with the majority and said the district should be doing all it could to inform local voters.

"I do find the Voters' Pamphlet helpful," he said. "I feel inclined to say that I think a lot of people aren't aware of the issues. We do need to educate the community on issues of capacity and the ages of our schools … I'm a little surprised to hear that (the school district) hadn't done it in the past."

Many Eastside school districts generally avoid placing explanations in the voter pamphlet for special elections, including Bellevue, Lake Washington and Issaquah. But Lake Washington notably failed a large construction bond — including funds to modernize Juanita High School in Kirkland — in February 2010 and they published an explanation in the voters' pamphlet the following year concerning a general fund levy.

In order to publish information in the voter guide, the school board needed to approve an "explanatory statement" of the bond and appoint members to "pro" and "con" committees who are willing to write statements by March 2, and submit statements and rebuttals on March 5 and 6.

The bond must meet a minimum threshold of 3,971 votes and requires 60% approval to pass.

(Addendum: MISD Superintendent Gary Plano provided Mercer Island Patch with the following statement to clarify the school district's past use of the Voter Pamphlet: "What I was responding to was the past-practice of the school district using its public funds to pay for a voter's guide to publish a Proposition and explain its rationale. The 1994 Voter's Guide to which you refer was not paid for with MISD's public funds. Because it was a general election, the County published Propositions from all of the taxing authorities in the County. Consequently, the Pro's and Con's Committee had authority to be heard via the Voter's Guide as a matter of State and county rule(s).")

Ira B. Appelman February 25, 2012 at 02:29 AM
What a concept -- actually checking the accuracy of a statement by a Mercer Island public official! Don't tell the MI Distorter -- that's what distinguishes the news from government-sponsored propaganda. So, contrary to what the Board majority and Superintendent wanted us to believe, in the mid-1990s, there was full-blown voters pamphlet coverage of the $16.4M bond issue that remodelled the elementary schools. The current bond issue is for an unbelievable $200,000,000. The Board majority has purposefully scheduled an off-election in April to surpress turnout, and the District must pay $30,000 to $40,000 for the privilege, but the Board cannot find $3,000 for a voters pamphlet for pros and cons. The Board majority is afraid that the flimsy justification for this poorly planned, overly expensive bond issue won't stand up to public scrutiny.
Carrie George February 25, 2012 at 04:53 PM
Lots to comment on! First, there are three big news items from the meeting last night. 1) The district presented revised tax estimates, which are about 35% lower than prior estimates. Great news! The tax increase will be approx. $300 on a $500,000 home, $500 on a $700,000 home, and $700 on a $1,000,000 home. The revisions result from interest rate declines and 2012 updates to assessed values. Dean Mack stated that they have slack built in for potential future interest rate increases. 2) The district presented 4 scenarios to the board for sequencing school construction. The tax numbers above are based on the most aggressive scenario, so actual rates could be a bit lower. In the scenario that seems most likely to me, Island Park will be compete in 2015, IMS in 2016, Lakeridge in 2017, and West Mercer in 2018. I believe that all four scenarios are available on the district web site. 3) The board announced that it will hold a special meeting at 7:00 p.m. on March 1 to discuss real estate. Interesting! Second, the Pro and Con issue seems to be a tempest in a teapot. Every board member's statement seemed quite reasonable, and it happened to come out 3-2 against. The error about past practice is unfortunate, but based on the quotes in the story above, I don't think it would have changed the outcome. The district is required by law to present an unbiased information piece that should answer all voters' questions, and the majority thought that was sufficient.
Lenore Defliese February 25, 2012 at 08:01 PM
Carrie, Can you please explains what we are now paying per household on the prior remodels, when that expires, and whether the increase you mention above is a net increase per household, or additional to what we are paying now?
Carrie George February 26, 2012 at 12:59 AM
Hi Lenore, In 2011, school taxes were $2.52 per $100,000 assessed value out of a total of $8.57. With the bond, taxes will go up to $2.68 in 2012 and then to approximately $3.60 in 2013. Then they'll be flat for the duration of the bonds. The bonds will actually be sold over a 5 to 7 year period in order to keep rates stable. Of the $2.52, $0.55 was from prior bonds, $.52 was from the capital levy, $.06 from the transportation levy, and $1.39 from the M&O levy. They will all be paid back by 2015. The $3.60 estimates includes gradual increases in all the other school taxes, so the increase attributable to the new bonds is approximately $.70 per $100,000, which is where we get the $700 per $1,000,000 home. I know it would have been good if we could have held off on re-building for another five or six years, but the overcrowding has reached the breaking point and projections show more kids coming. The elementary remodels will be 21 to 24 or 25 years old by the time the rebuilding is complete, and the target extended life was 25-30 - but the demographics have exploded. I'm happy to answer any more questions - by Patch, e-mail or in person.
Robert Brownes February 26, 2012 at 03:43 AM
Several more points to consider: 1) The campaign website mischoolsyes.org is not to be trusted. They skew the scale on the graphs, and claim that K-8 enrollment is 35% over capacity, when the real number is 31.38% over capacity. That's a 76 student difference, quite significant actually. According to the high enrollment prediction for 2017 for the entire district, enrollment will be 28.57 % over capacity. This is a very large difference, actually. And if the buildings can last five more years, then that is five more years of debate and planning to make a more efficient design. 2) Recently, a 21 CFPC & CMIP's member wrote that "simply adding a wing ... may provide additional classroom space but will not provide the 'modern' facility for the spaces untouched." I thought our more pressing concern was over crowding, and even if there were no overcrowding issues, our schools would continue to provide excellent education, as most proponents talk about experiences of "distractions", "every space used as teaching space"... etc. I am absolutely sure that if a negative and affirmative team were created for each side, fair debate would ensue, unlike the current system where there is only the school board and the CMIP's made to endorse the ballot. 3) Director Myerson seems to be the only director with a real idea of a plan, i.e. he wants a fourth elem. school and to put on a pamphlet. (sorry my account name changes -- all my Patch accounts somehow get deleted)
Kendall Watson February 26, 2012 at 10:14 AM
Hi Robert, Your account shouldn't be deleted. There was a verification email sent from Patch to your email account you provided with each registration. You need to respond to that email and confirm your account. If you can't find it, check your junk mail filter. Hope that helps.
Eva Zemplenyi February 29, 2012 at 02:02 AM
I was very disappointed by the Mercer Island School Board’s decision not to fund the $3,000 to place the almost $200,000,000 school bond measure in the voters’ pamphlet. This 3-2 vote was a vote for obfuscation and against the transparency so necessary for well-thought out governance. Adair Dingle rationalized her opposition by stating that she generally did not find voters’ pamphlets helpful; Pat Braman opined that most people already understood the bond issue and three members felt that since such voters’ pamphlets had apparently not been produced for prior school bond measures, this almost $200,000,000 bond measure, the largest in Mercer Island school history by far, did not deserve a pro and con analysis either. After all, spending .0015 percent of the total amount of the bond for printing a voters’ pamphlet, it was said, would not be good stewardship of citizens’ money. However, those in positions of power derive their authority from a well-informed electorate, and stymieing publication of the voters’ pamphlet runs counter to democratic principle. The board’s lack of openness and hurried presentation of a bond measure lacking fleshed-out plans deserves a “no” vote on the bond issue. Eva Zemplenyi
Robert P. Brown February 29, 2012 at 04:29 AM
I agree with you -- except Director Myerson and Director Emanuel voted "yes". I also read your letter in the Mercer Island Distorter, though they seem to place support letters higher up in the page. Not only did the majority of the board refuse to pay just 3000$, but they also strategically put it in a special election. One can expect that similarly to the MI Distorter's poll, many pro-bond supporters will vote. I can say with certainty that that poll, is inaccurate as the school and PTA sent out a "Legislative Alert" promoting a "yes". On page 3 of the 21CFPC Recommendation, it is stated that “While close to half of the committee members believe an ideal master plan would include four elementary schools, all but one on the committee would support a three elementary school configuration”. Why the sudden change in direction? According to the plans discussed at the 2/23/12 board mtg., Island Park was put first in all the sequences despite its smallest enrollment. Additionally, the Master Plan and Land acquisition were first on the timeline, when they proclaimed that a 4th school was out. On page 8 of the 21CFPC Recommendation, "Committee members unanimously agree that the school district is currently constrained by the land that it owns and that the board should be looking to acquire additional land for district use, as prudent and over time, offering them flexibility when considering the location of the bus barn, playfields, pre-school programs or new school sites. "
Kris Kelsay March 15, 2012 at 06:41 AM
The online version of the voter's pamphlet is out. Pro statement authored by Rand Ginn, Susan Blake and Emmett Maloof. Con statements by Marty Gale, Michael Finn and Trevor Hart. You can read more about it here: http://whatifitfails.wordpress.com/

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