School Bond Withdrawal Signals Transformation

By Marc J. Elzenbeck

On November 15, the Vashon school board voted unanimously to rescind the bond request for $19.5 million slated for 2023. Their decision was somewhat surprising, but in the finest and most refreshing sense, they elected to confront hard realities boiling down to a stew of bad timing. 

We should take this decision as a solid sign of leadership choosing its battles wisely. It exhibits an ability to listen, delve into details, make new judgements, and change course appropriately. For example, with fiscal agility, funds for the elementary school fire alarm system update were found. It’s not hard to guess that, going forward, we’re likely to need all those leadership qualities in abundance. As one Vashon High School student opines, “Schools are the highest and most expensive form of government on Vashon.”

Forgetting pain is a priceless tool that helps us move forward, but education no longer has a business as usual. Between August of 2020 and February of 2022, not a single school bond was attempted in Washington State (per VHS Class of 1990 graduate Ryan Swanson of Vashon Island School District’s investment bank Piper Sandler). And if you happened to attend the high school’s 2022 graduation ceremony in June, you would have heard a catchy song by a student band: “Good old days are over, the good old days are gone / As my life fades to grey, people I’ve met have not much to say.” Likewise, the seven VHS co-valedictorians who spoke voiced a common, weary theme: “This is over.”

Put what our students had to say alongside the board’s decision, and we see processing and follow-through: “We are facing a range of uncertainties related to the general economy, state education funding, interest rates, and inflation,” explained VISD Board President Toby Holmes. “By suspending the bond request, we can more carefully reduce risks until we are in a stronger position to confidently manage such a large undertaking.” 

Risk reduction. Yes, and a strong element of “too soon.” Public school hasn’t returned to normal. It can’t. For a lot of kids and parents,the past two and a half years were filled with uncertainty, loneliness, confused and often arbitrary authority, drudgery, and honest dread. Emails to parents exploded in number, kids couldn’t leave their screens without permission in their own homes, and whether sick or not, any child could be quarantined at any moment without warning. Watching kids reduced in remote classes to one of 25 thumbnails occupying a teacher’s screen provoked questions like, “What is public education’s purpose? What is unschooling and its benefits?” Such was the daily reality as the old elephant suffocated in its room. 

We are never going to forget this. School board upheavals are this past election cycle’s biggest story, as parents across the country showed determination to take more control over the levers for which our communities pay so much. 

This is the new horizon’s direction, and VISD seems to have found its feet and is traveling the path. It has a new Strategic Plan, one which emphasizes delivering value to students and their families. In Washington’s chief superintendent, Chris Reykdal, we have an educator who publicly acknowledged the disaster of locking down students, successfully fought the governor to re-open, and is setting higher performance standards.  

Meantime, a thought keeps returning: Maybe it’s no longer about investing in buildings, but in know-how. Maybe we’ve over-emphasized teaching what to think and impoverished how to think, and the pendulum is swinging away simply because it must. All great change agents know that transformations are far more about resolve than edifice. Witness the Family and Student Link enrollments, which have been ballooning in their outdated pre-fabs and linoleum. 

What we want is to move forward to something better, which was already hinted at – to vibrant, thriving schools that harness new winds, mine the knowledge packed into YouTube, and unleash the prowess of 3D printers that let 15-year-olds fabricate fully viable car parts. (Why don’t they already have 3D printers?) We all want what’s best for the kids, and these are the winning issues. We want to help them win in life and the world, and we’ll vote for the capital projects that deliver on those most precious metrics.

The school board listened, and that inspires faith. In return, they can have faith that Vashon is now far more likely to approve their considered guidance with enthusiasm.  

December 1, 2022

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