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"What price growth...?"
Copyright 1998 The Seattle Times Company

Editorials & Opinion : Monday, May 18, 1998

How much school growth is enough? Who pays?

by James Vesely
Seattle Times editorial columnist

TOMORROW'S school vote in Issaquah is one election the whole region should watch closely. At stake are big questions about the price of growth and whether any single town or school district can pay for it alone.

The district laps over into both Bellevue and Newcastle, but its headache is the cost of keeping up with growth on the Sammamish Plateau, where some schools have hundreds more students than expected.

Those against the school bond tax hike say growth should pay for itself, a powerful argument with voters squeezed by higher taxes. But Issaquah is not unique. Other towns have faced similar, intense debates. Here's one and what happened:

Jim Turner is the interim principal of Gold Bar Elementary School in the the Sultan school district, a job he took after retiring as the district's superintendent. Sultan and Gold Bar are among the towns along Highway 2 that are too easy to fly though on the way to somewhere else, but it is where Turner ended up. He came from Montana to become superintendent of the tiny school district that sprawls across communities like Startup and Index on the way into the Snoqualmie National Forest.

Turner remembers the first time he drove into the district to start his new job. It was a couple of weeks before a local school bond election and, as Turner recalls, "there was this big, hand-made sign that read, `NO STUPID BUS BARN'." He arrived in the district days ahead of a vote on two bumps in the property tax for schools, one of them for a transportation center that everybody called the bus barn. The election came and went, and the school measures failed.

"With a 60-percent majority for a school vote, it's tough," Turner said. "It doesn't take much to turn one down. But we get into these differences of opinion and it seems so hard not to get angry with each other. Most politicians would consider 60 percent a landslide, but not the schools. So it's hard to pass levies when just a few people are against something."

Turner began by inviting the opponents into the discussion, something not everyone would willingly do. Then there was the incident of the funeral that convinced him.

One of the town's fiercest opponents to school taxes died. Turner went to the funeral and heard a eulogy that portrayed the man as a supporter of schools, who loved his town and the kids in it. "I thought to myself, it's just a difference of opinion, it's not life or death or who is an enemy or who isn't. We have a system where it's OK to have disagreements. We get into these votes and it's too much about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

"It was a bitter fight for many years, but if everyone tries to be open and honest, no matter what they say, you come down to a simple thing. Kids should be housed in adequate facilities. Very few people go against that simple idea. That's true for young families and older people. You hear that older folks won't vote for schools, but I don't agree with that at all.

"Remember who they are. The older people today are the people who came through public schools all their lives. That was not the generation that gave up on public education and went to private schools. I never found it was hard to get them to support public education if you listen to them."

When Turner arrived in Sultan, the situation in the schools was bad. "One time," he said, "a Seattle TV station was showing pictures of how bad the Seattle schools were and by mistake, they showed some of our classrooms. We had plastic swimming pools catching water."

No more. The Sultan school district is watching growth climb up the foothills. Turner said it took about seven or eight years for the district to grow from 1,200 students to 2,000, but now, he says, the next big wave of growth is coming with more young families. Sultan High School is fairly new, built in 1987, but the questions start to form almost by themselves . . . Will four schools be enough? How will new schools be paid for? Who will foot the bill? Will there be signs that say, "NO STUPID BUS BARN," again?

I bring up Jim Turner as a way of bringing up Bill Elder. Elder is a strong opponent of tomorrow's Issaquah construction bond election. Elder believes the district is not doing enough with its money, and has urged a no vote, as he did last time when the bond measure failed. He doesn't have the kind of sign Turner saw driving into Sultan, but he has something close. On the front of Elder's mailing, it says, "Want straightforward information about property taxes and the May 19 school election? You won't get it from the school district advertising blitz."

And yet, in his broadside mailing to district voters, he writes he appreciates the job the Issaquah School District does educating children. Elder told me he voted for a levy for new buses and a levy for more technology in the classrooms. But he's not going to vote for new schools anytime soon. NO STUPID BUS BARN.

Turner's right; it's OK to disagree. The role of the dissident is poorly appreciated when the stakes are so high. I don't think Elder's right about the Issaquah schools, but Turner didn't think his opponents were right, either. He said sometimes the hardest thing to do after a levy fails is to play fair. When Turner was superintendent in Helena and Lewistown, Mont., losing a levy vote was always traumatic because it hits the district so hard. "But you have to be fair to the people, and not make cuts in programs out of anger. You can't take it out on the voters, or the parents.

"In the long run," said the man who turned the district around, "anger will just slow you down."

James Vesely's e-mail address is jvesely@seattletimes.com

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