In the aftermath of Bethel‘s 2018 bond failure there’s been a lot of discussion online and elsewhere about why the Bethel School District has so much trouble passing bonds.
As you can see in the accompanying chart, Bethel voters have failed 16 bond measures in the past 20 attempts dating back to 1980. The only passed bonds in the almost 40-year timespan were in 1986, 1990, 2001 and 2006.
A lot of reasons have been given for the most recent failure, including confusion over the McCleary decision, anger over the Sound Transit tax, and the hard-to-believe fact that taxes were going up in 2018, but would go back down in 2019.
But these issues should have impacted all of the school districts in Pierce County. However, if you look at the results of the February 2018 Special Election, you’ll see that all of Bethel’s surrounding school districts — Puyallup, Eatonville, and Franklin Pierce — not only passed their 2018 levies, but exceeded a 60% approval rating — the same percentage required to pass a bond in Washington state. And recently, Puyallup and Franklin Pierce did just that, passing bonds easily with the support of their community behind them.
So why do our surrounding communities support their schools at a higher percentage than the residents of Bethel?
75% of parents did NOT vote in the 2018 election
Only 25% of Bethel parents who are registered to vote actually voted in the February Special Election. Of all voters, our parents only made up 17% of the overall voters. That’s a startling fact. If only more of our parents turned in the ballots that were mailed to their homes, the elections could have easily swung a different way.
Over the last decade, Bethel has a clean track record of state audits. Our 2001 and 2006 bond projects were all completed on time and on budget. In fact, in 2014, Bethel took advantage of record-low bond rates and refinanced a portion of our outstanding bonds, resulting in a savings of almost $7 million for taxpayers. Despite our track record of fiscal responsibility, some voters erroneously believe the district isn’t a good steward of their tax dollars.
Success in the classrooms
The success of our schools should be an inspiration to our community. Our graduation rates have soared to 90%, above the state average. Our test scores continue their upward trajectory. Our schools and teachers are consistently recognized on the state and national stage, and our students are graduating and heading off to amazing careers and colleges. Bethel is a district to be proud of, yet that hasn’t seemed to resonate with a large portion of voters.
The lack of community involvement in Bethel is an enormous issue. Our school board meetings — held twice a month on Tuesday nights — are held in a board room filled with empty seats. When we convened our Long Range Facilities Task Force, 100 people initially signed up to be a part of it, yet, by the end, only 33 remained.
The only way to really create change in this community is to get involved. Join your local PTA, partner with the district in our Hunger Task Force or our Faith Leaders Group, attend a school board meeting, or run for local office. It’s time to get involved.
Strong schools build strong communities. And strong communities build strong schools. It is only together that we can make this fast-growing section of unincorporated Pierce County the place we want it to be. The district can’t do it alone.
It is up to us.