Shoreline School District suffers first of two severely damaging levy defeats on March 9, 1971.

  • By William Lehr
  • Posted 1/05/2002
  • Essay 3669
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On March 9, 1971, voters in the Shoreline School District defeated a school levy which, if passed, would have provided the school district with nearly $6 million. Many considered the levy too high, considering that the region was in the middle of the economic downturn known as the Boeing Bust. On May 18, 1971, Shoreline voters defeated an un-adjusted levy for the second time. The damage was severe. Because of reduced funding, six schools closed and classroom size increased. More than 300 employees were laid off as elementary schools went on double shift. The secondary schools adopted a basic education mode, dramatically reducing the number of classes and variety of subjects taught. On February 16, 1972, voters relented and passed a school levy to fund education in Shoreline.

A Robust and Healthy School System

The Shoreline School District began the 1970-71 academic year in robust shape. It enrolled 17,678 students in 19 elementaries, five junior highs, and two high schools. It also commissioned plans for a third high school on land purchased in 1969 from the Boeing estate.

The school district was the North End's largest employer with 1,145 professionals on its payroll. One of them, Helen Fitzgerald, a second grade teacher at Lake Forest Park Elementary, became the district's first instructor to be honored as Washington State Teacher of the Year in February 1971.

The First Levy Defeat: Hitting a Snag?

At first, the levy defeat on March 9, 1971, appeared little more than a snag. Sixty-three percent of the ballots cast supported the district's $5,990,000 proposition, but the measure failed for lack of voters. Under the absurdity of the state's voting requirements, if an additional 320 voters had gone to the polls and all voted No, the levy would have met its 40 percent turnout requirement and passed.

Although the 1971 levy was $1 million higher than its predecessor, Superintendent William G. Stevenson and the school board defended the amount as "a rock bottom figure." The 3.4 percent budget increase for 1971-72 was necessary, they argued, to keep pace with inflation in regard to salaries and expenses, cover higher social security contributions mandated by the federal government, and replace a state funding cutback of $285,000.

The district further defended the levy by stating that the $614.97 spent per pupil during the 1969-70 academic year was below the average school district per-pupil expenditure in King County.

Citizens for a Lower Levy

The Citizens for a Lower Levy saw things differently. Its members thought the district had too many administrators. They did not want to raise taxes for what they regarded as a top-heavy organization that included three assistant superintendents.

As spokesperson Edsel Hammond would explain some 30 years later, "We wanted a more reasonable levy. After the first defeat, we thought that the board would see the light and reduce the amount." Instead, the school board voted unanimously at its March 15th meeting to resubmit the levy request unaltered. "What if we lose?" Hammond asked the board that night. It was a question that would haunt the district for the rest of the year.

Hammond made one last attempt to change the board's mind during a school board meeting on April 1st. The Citizens for a Lower Levy had run an ad in the Aurora Shoreline Journal asking whether voters would favor the board's resubmitted $5,990,000 levy request or "a TRUE hold-the-line levy of $4,990,000," the same as the previous year's.

According to the minutes of the meeting, Hammond told the board that most of the 100 people who responded to the ad were critical of the district administration: "They mainly stated that the schools are not tightening their belts, as are local citizens."

Shoreline Education Association President Ed Orsborn took exception to the accusation. He claimed that teachers had been tightening their belts for two years and that the current 1970-71 budget "was actually a reduction" because of inflation. Orsborn encouraged the levy's adversaries "to look at the data" before opposing the measure.

Hammond responded that "his concern is to pass the levy, but at an amount acceptable to the public: that his interest in this matter is only to provide service to the board by sampling the community."

At the end of the community comment period, board president Mary Robins "indicated a fear that maintaining the levy amount at $5,990,000 might result in losing the total levy." This was the first public indication that a member of the board had begun to regret the board's decision to resubmit an unaltered levy request.

No Ordinary Year

Still, the levy probably would have passed in an ordinary year, but 1971 was no ordinary year. The central Puget Sound area's double-digit unemployment rate would, by some measures, reach 18 percent in the depth of the Boeing bust.

To make matters worse, homeowners received notice of a 50 percent increase in their property assessments three weeks before election day. The notices generated considerable shock, since assessments hadn't changed in eight years. Although the increase in assessments did not guarantee higher taxes (since the higher assessments could permit the actual tax rate to be lowered), many homeowners feared the worst.

The Second Levy Defeat

A dozen other districts, including Shoreline, had their levies rejected again on May 18, 1971. There were enough Shoreline district voters to satisfy the 40 percent turnout hurdle this time, but not enough Yes votes to satisfy the 60 percent super-majority requirement. The 7,764 Yes votes represented an insufficient 56.5 percent of the ballots cast.

Surveying the regional school financing debacle two days later, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial proclaimed: "The solution to the problem rests with the State Legislature which, during the most recent session, not only failed to eliminate the special levy burden on school districts, but drafted a budget which cut state support for schools .... The next legislative session ... has a clear mandate to make the crisis of public education in the state its number one priority."

It was not the first, nor would it be the last time that legislators were charged with neglecting their "paramount duty."

The response to the school district's levy defeat took a variety of forms. In a May 20, 1971 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, president Robins told reporter Solveig Torvik that she abstained when the school board voted to resubmit the full request. "I felt that it was a year of economic instability, when we should have held the present $4.99 million support," she explained.

Her claim was at variance with the written record. The minutes for the board's meeting of March 15, 1971, were approved as accurate on April 1, 1971, and signed by Robins herself in her capacity as board president. They clearly state that the vote to resubmit was unanimous.

In the same article, Torvik quoted an unidentified teacher at a Shoreline Education Association (the teachers' union) meeting who argued that "we should give highest consideration to closing those schools where we received the least support in Tuesday's election."

Although the Shoreline Education Association didn't endorse his idea, union members did vote to ask their state and national unions for "national professional sanctions" against the Shoreline district to warn teachers away from applying for jobs in the district. SEA President Orsborn explained the rationale: "Shoreline is forced to operate a sub-standard educational program."

A few days later, Orsborn wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor of the Aurora-Shoreline Journal, suggesting that students might have to be held hostage at school until a ransom was paid by their parents to offset the loss of levy funding.

One person the teachers did not attack was Superintendent Stevenson, who earlier in his Shoreline career had been president of the local. Shortly after the election, the Shoreline Education Association awarded Stevenson its Administrator of the Year award.

Cutbacks, Layoffs, Closings: Destroying Education?

In June 1971, Stevenson announced that six schools would have to be closed to save money: Richmond Beach, Ronald, Cromwell Park, Paramount Park, and Cedarbrook elementaries plus Cordell Hull Junior High School.

Since the defeated levy was designed to provide 35 percent of the Shoreline School District budget, everyone knew that cutbacks would be severe. A headline in the Aurora-Shoreline Journal summed up parents' and educators' fears: "Can $4 Million Be Cut Without Destroying Education?"

When the new school year began in September 1971, bad news rolled over the district like a tidal wave. A total of 376 people were laid off, 332 of them full-time employees, including 212 teachers. Forty percent of the administrative staff were let go. All extra-curricular activities sponsored by the district were eliminated as projected expenditures were cut 24 percent. To balance the books, the budget was reduced $4 million to $12,288,000.

The elementary schools that remained open assigned the high number of students they received into double shifts of three hours each. Since employees were laid off in accordance with seniority, the instructors who remained often lacked training and experience at the grade-level to which they were assigned. The average size of a class also expanded, from 28 to 33.5, with some classes holding as many as 42 students.

The student-teacher ratio at the junior and senior high schools increased from 25-to-1 to 36-to-1. It would have been even higher, but the district qualified for Federal support under the federal Emergency Employment Act of 1971.

The Shoreline High School faculty dropped from 96 to 68 teachers. Only 86 subjects were taught instead of 143 the previous year. There were also 107 fewer classes as both Shoreline and Shorecrest contracted into a "basic education" mode.

Classroom crowding would have been worse than it was, if the expected number of students had shown up. By mid-September, however, only 15,572 students were enrolled, a decrease of 2,100 from the previous year. Although some of the drop off could be attributed to the demographic onset of the Baby Bust, many students had chosen to enroll elsewhere to avoid the chaos.

In November 1971, the two incumbents who ran for reelection to the school board, Al Dillan and Mary Robins, were defeated. In the first of many electoral victories, Grace Cole ran against a write-in candidate and won in a landslide. She would spend the next 14 years on the school board, then serve another 14 in the state legislature, where she specialized in education issues.

In late November 1971, the Washington Education Association imposed a Level-1 sanction against the Shoreline district, as requested by its Shoreline local the previous March. In explaining its action, the Association charged that "unsatisfactory education conditions exist" because of a levy failure. The state chapter put off more serious sanctions until the next levy election in February.

Repairing the Damage

On the eve of the February 1972 election, the Superintendent of Public Instruction raised the stakes, notifying Superintendent Stevenson that Shoreline's junior and senior high schools only merited a "probationary accreditation." The warning was clear. Should another levy failure lead to the loss of accreditation, Shoreline students might find it more difficult to get into college.

On February 16, 1972, nearly 67 percent of the ballots cast by Shoreline voters approved Proposition 1, a "basic school levy" of $5.9 million, which would allow the district to hire more teachers and reduce class size the following school year. It also contained funding for special education and a learning disabilities program.

An insufficient 55 percent of voters also favored Proposition 2, which would have raised another $700,000 to reopen Cordell Hull Junior High and further reduce class sizes. A majority of voters turned down proposition 3, which would have given the district an extra $400,000 to reopen three elementary schools and reduce class size further still.

Neither losing proposition was resubmitted to the voters. District officials did not want to risk antagonizing members of the community, as they had the previous year.

For the second year in a row, a Shoreline instructor was named Washington State Teacher of the Year. Kathleen Bartholomew, a primary-grade teacher who had worked in the district since 1960, was the honoree.

Forty of Bartholomew's classroom colleagues were hired back in September 1972. That same month, voters overwhelmingly approved a proposal to scrap construction of a totally new high school in what is now Shoreview Park and to build instead a less expensive Shorewood High School on the combined Butler Junior High and Ronald Elementary School properties west of Aurora Boulevard.

Reruns and Scars: The Hard Lessons of 1971

Shoreline district voters would continue to be selective in the support they gave levies in subsequent years. In 1973, Proposition 1, a levy of $5,399,165 to improve the student-teacher ratio and add a sixth period to junior high passed with 72 percent of the vote, while two other levies were defeated.

Initially, the levy situation in 1975 seemed like a rerun of 1971. In February a levy for $7.6 million was apparently defeated by a handful of votes (59.98% voted yes). A Superior Court judge ruled the election invalid, however, since 247 ballots had been tallied but couldn't be found. This meant that the district would have two more chances at passage.

The school board seemed determined to learn the hard lesson of 1971, especially since the proposed levy accounted for some 40 percent of the district's budget. Although he board reduced the size of the levy to $7.2 million, it was defeated in April with only 54 percent voting Yes.

On a third try in June, the levy was reduced again to $6,250,000 by eliminating funding for summer school, cutting back money for textbooks and supplies, and terminating kindergarten at two elementaries. It squeaked by with 61 percent of the vote while two other propositions, which would have funded a variety of efforts, including the purchase of vocational equipment and extra funding for highly capable classes, were defeated.

"A school board that listened to the public and reduced its levy request was credited by Supt. Dr. William G. Stevenson for the (levy's) success," according to a Seattle Times' story the day after the election. Four years after it organized, the Citizens for a Lower Levy had apparently won a reluctant convert. But at what cost?

In an interview with Post-Intelligencer reporter Steve Johnston that appeared on April 1, 1975, Stevenson admitted that the 1971 levy loss had helped administrators find and eliminate budget fat, but that the reductions they were compelled to make had also "cut bone."

Stevenson recalled the pain of four years earlier. "Everybody was mad at everybody else," he said. "A levy failure has a lingering effect on a school district and that is the hardest part to get across to people."


Shoreline School Board Minutes, 1971, Shoreline School District Offices, Shoreline, Washington; Clipping File on the Shoreline Public Schools (including Aurora Shoreline Journal, Western Sun, The Seattle Times, and Seattle Post-Intelligencer), Shoreline Historical Museum, Shoreline, Washington; The Seattle Times, June 11, 1975; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 20, 1971, and April 1, 1975.

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