(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).")