School board re-evaluates bond: Community forum

After the tortuously slim, three-vote failure of February’s $8 million school bond proposal, the school board held a community forum this week to regroup, reevaluate its strategy, and focus on moving forward.

“The school board is here tonight to listen – and over these next three months,” said moderator Lisa Byers. “They need to know what needs to change in order for this bond to be acceptable [to the community] and to get the votes it needs to pass.”

Principal Eric Webb explained that the next attempt to pass a school bond would be on the November ballot, which means the board has April, May and June to gather community input, will hold a special board meeting in July and must submit its resolution to the elections office by Aug. 1.

Despite feelings of frustration people may have, Byers added, “Tonight is a night about coming together again and seeing how we can move forward,” saying that everyone in attendance cares deeply about the community and wants what is best for it.

Attendees were asked to brainstorm, sharing their opinions on why the bond measure failed and their recommendations to the school board for future action.

Post-it notes from all were roughly categorized into the following proposed reasons for bond failure: 1. Low voter turnout; 2. An inadequate campaign; 3. The proposed track line item was not clear or was controversial; 4. Lack of trust in school maintenance; and 5. Reluctance to accept higher taxes or the cost of the bond.

The proposed $8 million bond would have cost 28 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Just 51.98 percent of the district’s 4,261 registered voters actually voted, and 59.86 percent of those supported the bond measure, just shy of the 60 percent required to pass.

Attendees suggested the following reasons for the low number of votes in support of the bond: bad weather; folks assumed it would pass and fixed-income voters were concerned about costs. A focus group noted that statistically, the hamlets of Orcas and Olga supported the bond while Eastsound residents did not. (Support by precinct: Waldron – 80.85 percent; Blakely – 63.64 percent; Orcas East – 62.90 percent; Orcas West 60.75 percent; Orcas Central – 59.58 percent; Eastsound – 54.53 percent.) The group suggested forming a coordinated regular campaign committee and outreach to groups of people unlikely to attend community forums at the school. The next focus group agreed, recommending emphasis on voter registration, a simple website outlining bond information and further community education.

The “track” focus group felt information was lacking – especially the fact that the $1.3 million line item would have also paid to fix up the school’s fields. They said an endowment was offered in addition to the $1 million proposed private donation that would pay for the track, but was not well publicized before the vote. As the endowment is unrestricted, they suggested the school board make a clear statement promising they will reserve the funds for long-term maintenance of the fields and track.

Orcas Island Community Foundation Director Hilary Canty has explained to the Sounder that both the endowment and track bequest are a gift offered by Phyllis Henigson and her late husband, Bob. When Bob passed away in 2014, he left legacy gifts to seven local organizations, one of which was an endowment to benefit the Orcas Island School District. Under the management of the community foundation, that fund is invested to provide both growth and an annual distribution of about $50,000 to the school district. The current balance is $1.1 million.

Phyllis wanted to honor Bob’s memory and his commitment to the schools with a $1 million donation for a competition-level track. As currently designed, the track is boxy in shape to provide room in the interior for sports fields. The cost of the track is covered entirely by the $1 million financial gift, said Canty, while the additional $1.3 million requested in the bond proposal would fund improving the fields and drainage. The annual maintenance for the track is estimated at $6,000-8,000 and is expected to be fully covered by endowment distributions.

“The Henigsons have provided a great example of how to do bequests right,” said Canty. “Philanthropy is always going to play a role in our community – making sure gifts don’t come with too high a cost is critical for success.”

The group discussing maintenance voiced concerns that truly needed repairs and upgrades had been dropped off of previous bond phases; some said that community members feel a “sense of manipulation” and believe “nice-to-have” items were included along with true health and safety needs in previous bond requests in order to obtain voter support.

“Some people voted no because they’re just tired of that game,” said one attendee, who also mentioned that two urinals in the boys’ locker room have been out of order for more than two years.

The group recommended including in the bond all items that need fixing before “building more things that need maintaining.” They also requested overall better communication about maintenance the school is currently completing, possibly in the form of quarterly reports, progress updates and explanations clarifying why certain items have not been fixed. According to another attendee, many people say they voted no on the $8 million bond but would have supported the bond at $12 million if it had included all items perceived as true repair needs.

In closing, County Councilman Rick Hughes apologized for not publicly supporting the bond measure, saying it’s a “unique opportunity” and that it’s “incredibly short-sighted” not to take a serious look at it. Community members are invited to volunteer for the campaign committee or otherwise support the school’s bond efforts; email Janet Brownell at to sign up.