School meetings need more public input

January 15, 2014 

Will a change of venue mean a change in fortune for the Peninsula School District’s funding attempts? Meetings held in public spaces, such as the Key Center library and the Boys & Girls Club, put political discussions on neutral ground. Having childcare at the Goodman Middle School can ease a burden on families. Accommodations can bring a diversity of opinion.

That diverse opinion is much needed.

The PSD’s failed capital levy in November, and the vocal opposition, put the district back on its heels. Now it’s gone back to the drawing board for ideas, which include redrawing district lines to move students from overcrowded elementary schools, as well as future options for funding.

There are five options on the table for potential ballot measures, and school district officials hope to gain insight from the public on which they prefer. Perhaps moving meetings to neutral ground will not only help diversify feedback but restore public trust. At this point, it’s difficult to predict.

An internal survey from the Citizens for Responsible School Spending group, provided to the Gateway by Jerry Gibbs, has an undercurrent of skepticism. Gibbs and Ken Manning distilled the opinion into a list of suggestions that occasionally sounds like an airing of grievances.

A prime example is this summary: “The school board came off as ‘out of touch’ and ‘resistant to change’ in the eyes of many voters.”

That’s a big hill to climb. If a majority of voters feel that way, and the school board can’t earn voters’ trust by April — and, really, it’s a tough task at any time to ask the public for money — it’s probably a safe bet to wait until the November election.

The question becomes, does the board need to rebuild trust, or do they just need to sway a few more voters? It’s not like the election was a drubbing.

It would be naive to think that any request — bond, levy, enormous, tiny, short, long — would be regarded with open arms. Outside of the routine maintenance and operations levies — and replacements thereof — this district has had difficulty with passing additional requests for money.

A $78 million bond measure was narrowly rejected in February 2012 after 58 percent of voters said yes. Because it was a bond, the measure needed a 60 percent supermajority. Last November’s four-year, $50 million capital levy request needed a simple majority, and it was nearly split down the middle. Fifty-one percent said no.

The Gibbs and Ken Manning-led opposition group also said Key Peninsula residents feel they were treated as second-class citizens. It’s a fiery, but understandable, characterization.

Based on the November levy, the east side of the Purdy spit was allotted a substantial amount of the money, including the big-ticket, shiny new Gig Harbor North school. Artondale Elementary, which would be on track to be brand new in a few years, is miles away from Evergreen Elementary on the southern portion of the Key.

The school board anticipated that and included $5 million that would have been spent on technology and security throughout the district, so voters throughout could see some result of their hard-earned dollars.

But the opposition has a point there. When two schools would be built at $22.5 million each, and they would both be near Gig Harbor, we can see how some Key Peninsula parents would feel like the shared technology money would be like tossing them a small bone.

All in all, it’s comforting to see the school board take suggestions. A levy defeat seems to have redirected the board, because now there are options that scale down the Artondale project.

Horace Mann, considered a godfather of the modern education system, called learning “our only political safety.” Since better schools are in the best interest of the community, the district should listen to all demographics of the community.

These public meetings should prove to be a solid move in that direction.

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