South Whidbey School District deserves congratulations for providing two levies totaling $5.9 million that voters found pleasing, passing both by more than a 60 percent majority in the election that ended Tuesday, Feb. 2.
Supporters admitted their approach to passing the levy was low-key, and obviously it worked. There was one voter information night held belatedly, a week after the ballots arrived in the mail, and a scattering of “vote schools” signs posted. But that’s about it.
There is in fact little need to be high key in support of school district levy elections. For one thing, the Legislature a few years ago decided that a “supermajority” of 60 percent or more is no longer needed to pass regular school levies. Fifty percent plus one will suffice. The supermajority is still needed for bond issues, which tend to be super expensive, entailing borrowing to construct major projects like new buildings or entirely new schools. Our school district’s last bond election, to combine the middle and high schools, received less than 50 percent support.
Removing the supermajority requirement made passing levies easier, but so did the mail-in ballot itself. There was a time when teachers smiled and waved “support our schools” signs at the ferry dock and major intersections. That’s because voter turnout was crucial. If at least 40 percent of the voters who participated in the last general election did not vote in the school election, then the result was failure regardless of how many people voted. Grumpy people who don’t support schools could stay home and in effect cast a no vote.
In recent years, with the mail-in ballots, voter turnout has not been an issue. With a three week period in which to vote, there are always enough people who send in a ballot and qualify the election as valid.
As a result of these two changes — no need for a supermajority for school levies and easy, mail-in balloting — school districts have a lot easier time obtaining voter approval than in the past.
Bond issues are still difficult, though, and South Whidbey may need one soon to solve the middle school problem. School supporters should be prepared to work much, much harder when bond time rolls around.