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School's Out

February-March 2024

North Kitsap’s school bond election, and events leading up to it, provided high drama in 2024. Voters had to determine whether to support taxes that would raise over $240 million (more like $400 million counting interest over twenty years) to rebuild and improve North Kitsap schools. Passing the measure required 60% approval. Of the roughly 12,500 votes counted in the February 12 election, only 4,550 (37%) approved the bond, while 7,800 (63%) voted no.

The NKSD argued that the bond if passed would still impose far less onerous a tax burden than in other school districts, adding $50 per year to the property tax of a home assessed at $500k. Is this correct, if we figure in the real $400 million plus other school levies already in force? The real costs have not been communicated well to residents who already feel priced out of North Kitsap by skyrocketing home values and taxes.

And there will always be people who oppose further taxation no matter what their finances are--opposed to big government trying to take what’s theirs.

Many who are financially comfortable, and who have always supported education levies and bonds on principle, still voted against the measure.

The large majority who voted no are strange bedfellows indeed.

What accounts for this unity that led to the bond’s spectacular failure?

Most of us want education in Kitsap to be great, teachers compensated well for their caring and hard work, and facilities to welcome and nurture kids from kindergarten through high school.

The bond measure proposed to rebuild two elementary schools (Pearson and Wolfle) from the ground up, expand Poulsbo and Gordon Elementary Schools and Poulsbo Middle School, upgrade Kingston Middle Schools, and improve playfields for Kingston and NK High Schools.

Pearson Elementary, over 75 years old and situated on a narrow, multi-level property next to a busy road, is the neediest. In 1993, the school district purchased a new property about a mile away to replace the school, and still owns that property. The 2024 bond measure, however, called for the new school to be built at the very northern edge of the attendance area for Pearson: most students would have to be bussed to a newly-located Pearson in Poulsbo, near Finn Hill Road. What’s the reasoning behind this change that requires a major displacement of the student body? Does it involve a deal with the big developer who is planning to build houses in that neighborhood and wants someone else to foot some of the bill for infrastructure improvement? Since Vinland Elementary is barely a mile from this Finn Hill location, mightn’t it be vastly more cost-effective to refurbish and reopen the Breidablick school (closed in 2013 for budget reasons) rather than spending $82 million (!) on a new one in the same catchment area as Vinland? We’d like more communication about this, and parents obviously do too.

The most glaring omission to the capital bond: Suquamish Elementary School is being treated as the runt of the litter rather than a jewel in the crown. The NKSD’s lip-service, low-budget proposals (“New gymnasium to create a dedicated space for PE classes … [to] ensure that Suquamish Elementary has a separate common space for student meals and larger gatherings” and “new HVAC controls”) neglect to mention that this school, too, has portables and awkward, even dangerous access. Consequently, the Suquamish Tribal Council refused to endorse the 2024 bond measure. “The Tribe has a track record of supporting public education in North Kitsap” in the form of endorsing bonds and levies and frequently giving generous grants to individual NK schools, teachers, and programs. “However,” they assert, “excluding the Suquamish Elementary School from the bond measure is not equitable for children in our community, nor for the hardworking school staff who educate our students.”

Non-Indigenous allies of the Tribe agree, and on this basis alone decided to cast their No vote for the bond. (BTW, although Suquamish was indeed in the last levy, the promised funding ever actually reached the school. What happened to it?)

There is a history of slights and injury to the Tribe. Just last year, NKSD Superintendent Laurynn Evans announced that the District would cancel its traditional Native American graduation honoring ceremony due to a tight budget. Evans referred to the honoring as a “party.” The resulting outcry led quickly to reinstating the ceremony--but the damage had been done. The District’s empty talk of equity and honoring diversity was laid bare.

Which leads us to the most recent precipitating cause of the No vote on the schools: Dr. Evans herself. Since January 26 the story has been widely covered in print, on TV news, and on social media. In a nutshell: the superintendent took it on herself to yank out “Vote No” signs before the election, try to hide the evidence, and lie about it. (Tampering with election signs is a misdemeanor in WA State punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine for each violation.) When questioned by city and county police, she called Poulsbo’s police chief to her side for “protection.” What a stark example of privilege: Chief Harding rushed to meet her, mere steps from where in 2019 Poulsbo police killed an Indigenous man who had committed no crime at all.

Perhaps the public wouldn’t be so outraged about Signgate if it weren’t for a buildup of resentment toward Evans and her Board over the last years. She’s known for her top-down leadership style, dominating the board members rather than serving them, and despite the smooth talk, not listening to the public. Public comment at NKSD school board meetings is far more tightly controlled than in other districts, so that parents and others have a hard time making their voices heard. (Incompetence with mics and Zoom technology often makes it impossible to hear the proceedings. The rear part of the room where the roiling masses sit craning their necks and cupping their ears is redolent of the holds of ships where immigrants to America were crammed a century ago.) Evans seems to take no interest in ongoing bullying and threats to Black, Jewish, Latinx, Native, and queer students in NK schools, despite petitions and proposals from parent groups protesting systemic racism.

Last June, the teachers’ and employees’ unions registered a damning 98% no-confidence vote in Evans (and 99% in the school board) in response to “five years of not being listened to, five years of no transparency.” (Kitsap Sun, 6/16/23) In recent weeks, the union of NKSD’s transportation workers voted no confidence as well.

The widespread news that Evans has stolen and lied sets no great example for NK’s school kids. Following the failure of the bond election, and the embarrassment of being caught red-handed, why hasn’t she had the decency to resign, or why hasn’t she been terminated by the school board? Evans was placed on temporary leave from her job. The County Prosecutor filed charges against her on 2/21. As long as she doesn’t break the law in the next six months, she will suffer no legal consequences.

But her influence on the running of NK school administration persisted, and will renew if no one fires her. The most recent school board meetings present a study in contrasts. Here’s the Old Board on 2/8/24, after Signgate and just before the election. At this meeting, Akuye Karen Vargas was the last to step up to the mic during public comments. What followed exemplifies the insensitivity of Evans’s NKSD. Board Director Mike Desmond forbade Vargas to speak since she hadn’t registered to do so. The entire audience urged him to let her talk. For several minutes, Vargas, a highly respected Black community leader and elder, patiently waited while Desmond exerted his privilege and enforced “the rules.” When the public’s persistence finally won her the right to speak, Vargas requested the dismissal of Laurynn Evans and the resignation of the school board.

Then at the next meeting, Acting Superintendent Rachel Davenport was in charge. The atmosphere was lighter. There was more public comment, and rules were adjusted for the better. Board members actually engaged in discussion. We need to ensure that this relaxed and, dare we say more democratic and inclusive, spirit continues.

Looking ahead

A new bond proposal can be written any time and presented at any election. This next time, NKSD needs to get it right. The people are watching. The proposal must be equitable and not leave Suquamish out. The question of equity also underlies what happens with Pearson, Vinland, and Breidablick (how would the kids bussed in from the sticks be made to feel next to the students from the expensive new homes of the Finn Hill area?).

How must the District make these decisions? By meeting with parents and listening, with openness and real transparency. It’s now dealing with what good leaders dream of: an energized, mobilized public.


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