OLYMPIA - Thurston County school district levies were passing by large margins in the first returns Tuesday night, with all the districts receiving well above the 50 percent majority needed to pass.
The Olympia School District’s construction and technology levy was passing with more than 65 percent of the vote, and maintenance and operations levies in North Thurston, Tumwater, Rainier, Griffin, Rochester and Tenino all were passing with more than 54 percent of the vote.
District officials and board members had said earlier this year that the tight economy was a factor in deciding the sizes of the levies, which affect property taxes. In general, the school districts kept the same tax rates or the same levy amounts as they had for the current year.
In Olympia, the construction and technology levy will pay for building maintenance as well as technology equipment and training. There had been discussion about whether the district should go for a construction and technology bond, which would enable it to complete more projects but would have required a 60 percent supermajority to pass. A levy requires only a 50 percent majority but doesn’t raise money as quickly as a bond.
Despite the high level of voter support Tuesday, there was no second-guessing the decision to go for a levy.
“It didn’t feel like this was the right time to go out for a bond,” Olympia board President Frank Wilson said. “Let’s get these needed projects done now, and we’ll worry about future growth later.”
“I think it was the right thing to do at this time,” Superintendent Bill Lahmann said. “We wanted to keep the (tax) rate flat, and make sure that we weren’t going out and asking voters for a lot of money at a difficult time.”
The mood at the Thurston County Elections Ballot Processing Center was joyous as Auditor Kim Wyman read the results for the school districts.
The maintenance and operations levies make up between 14.7 percent and 19 percent of local school district general funds, so a failure would have meant heavy budget cuts to local districts. Most of the rest of the school districts’ general fund budgets come from state funding.
Even though voters statewide approved lowering the requirement to pass a levy from 60 percent approval to 50 percent, passing maintenance and operations levies have not been a slam dunk in this county.
Two districts – Rochester and North Thurston – failed to win a 50 percent majority in February 2008, the first special election that didn’t require a 60 percent supermajority .
This time, both Rochester and North Thurston easily cleared the hurdle, with just over 59 percent approval in both districts.
Jon Halvorson co-chaired the campaign for the North Thurston maintenance and operations levy, which in 2008 failed on its first try.
“We had over 150 levy volunteers, which is more than we’ve ever had before. One weekend we had 200 sign wavers,” Halvorson said. “We’re thankful that even in these difficult times, voters do support the kids.”
Ruth Weigelt, co-chairwoman of the North Thurston Citizens for Schools, said that she had been feeling positive about the results after the campaign reached out to PTAs throughout the district.
“You just felt that everyone was informed and really understood the issues,” she said.
Wyman said about 53,900 ballots were counted as of Tuesday, and about 56,000 ballots were expected to be received in total. That would be fewer ballots than in the February 2008 special election, which also included the 2008 presidential primary. In that election, about 70,500 ballots were returned.
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