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Originally published Wednesday, November 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Education

School-levy elections enter "great unknown"

The election landscape will be dramatically different in February when seven Snohomish County school districts ask their voters to approve...

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Education digest

Everett

Board president gets state position

Everett School Board President Karen Madsen was elected vice president of the Washington State School Directors' Association (WSSDA) at its annual conference Nov. 19.

Madsen, who has served 10 years on the Everett School Board, said her primary responsibility will be to act as the WSSDA board's legislative liaison, monitoring state efforts to raise standards for high-school diplomas, developing math and science guidelines and providing adequate educational funding.

Edmonds

Training offered to volunteer tutors

Training to become a volunteer tutor in the Edmonds School District will be offered from 9:30 a.m. to noon Thursday at Seaview Elementary, 8426 188th St. S.W., Edmonds.

Volunteers will learn what it takes to successfully work with students, how to teach reading basics and to work one on one with a child.

The session is free but requires pre-registration by calling Becky Tilbury at 425-431-7350.

Lake Stevens

Dickens-themed craft fair Saturday

The 21st annual Dickens Craft Fair to benefit the Lake Stevens School District's Community Education program will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Cavelero Mid High School, 8220 42nd St. S.E., Everett.

More than 80 vendors, dressed in Charles Dickens-era costumes, will sell handcrafted items. Several school musical groups will perform throughout the day.

Admission is a can of food or cash for the Lake Stevens Food Bank.

The election landscape will be dramatically different in February when seven Snohomish County school districts ask their voters to approve funding measures.

State voters narrowly passed a simple-majority requirement for school levies in the Nov. 6 general election. District leaders say that instead of the high-stress uncertainty of securing a 60 percent supermajority, they now will have to convince a little more than half of their voters to pass the levies that fund about 17 percent of daily school operations. Construction-bond measures still require 60 percent approval.

But for the first time, school districts also face the county's all-mail election, which means more ballots in the hands of people who don't necessarily support schools or the taxes to pay for them.

District leaders around the county say they are uncertain what effect the changes will have.

"It changes our anxiety level," said Judy Schwab, Mukilteo School Board vice president. "This is the great unknown."

Arlington, Darrington, Granite Falls, Lakewood, Monroe, Mukilteo and Stanwood-Camano all plan to go to their voters with school-levy and/or construction-bond measures Feb. 19.

Snohomish County adopted all-mail voting in January 2006, but it didn't take effect until the September primary, making the seven districts the first to run finance measures under the all-mail vote.

When Thurston County changed to all-mail voting in 1993, one of the first casualties was school-finance measures, said Auditor Kim Wyman. Instead of running one campaign, which often consisted of mailings and phone calls to supporters on the eve of the election, Wyman said districts had to shift to running campaigns timed to the mailing of absentee ballots and continuing through the election date.

"In 1994, [North] Thurston schools had a double levy failure for the first time. A lot of people pointed fingers at us," because of the change to all-mail voting, Wyman said,

Once school supporters adjusted their campaign strategies, she said, they successfully passed finance measures, though by narrower margins. The upside for the county, she said, was that voter participation nearly tripled, from about 13 percent to 42 percent in general elections.

Schwab said the Mukilteo campaign will include community forums and getting information to voters early on its $139.2 million construction-bond measure and $11.2 million capital-projects and technology levy.

"Then we'll ramp it up," she said, noting that the state simple-majority measure went from apparent election-night defeat — the early ballots of absentee voters — to victory on the strength of late poll voters.

Lakewood Superintendent Larry François said the challenge under all-mail voting will be to ensure that poll voters, who have traditionally favored school measures, return their ballots.

Lakewood's March 2004 levy failed on its first try despite 75 percent approval by poll voters. Just 51 percent of absentee ballots supported the measure. Those measures passed in a second attempt, but at a cost of $21,300, François said.

And the costs can be higher. The Snohomish School District spent $90,165 to rerun its failed levy in April 2006, said budget analyst Ruth Floyd.

This time around, Lakewood is seeking approval of a $20.1 million, four-year replacement levy and a $3.8 million technology levy. And under the simple-majority provision, they only need one vote more than 50 percent to pass.

"We're all hoping it's not such a stressful situation, that the levy will pass the first time and spare everyone the time and expense of a second election," François said.

In the past four years, levies in every district received at least 50 percent approval. But a Marysville construction bond in 2003 received just 48 percent approval, and a February 2006 levy crossed the 60 percent mark by only 23 votes.

Marysville Superintendent Larry Nyland called passage of the simple-majority measure "huge." He said rerunning failed levies not only costs money, it effectively puts a district's administrative work on hold until the levy is approved. Budgets are cut in anticipation of the levy failing; employees must be notified of potential layoffs; and instead of directing energies to supporting classroom instruction, administrators are taking all of these steps while trying to support a second campaign.

"Life stops," Nyland said.

Adding all-mail voting to the mix may reduce the overall percentage of voters favoring schools, Nyland said, but on balance, the simple majority should make levies easier to pass the first time.

Mukilteo's Schwab said the basic compact between the school district and the voters remains unchanged.

"We still have to get their permission to spend money and prove we're spending it wisely," she said.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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