In early returns, Bethel SD residents vote to approve $50M levy that funds programs, jobs

Dozens of school services and programs and hundreds of jobs are at risk of elimination at the Bethel School District in Pierce County as district residents vote on a $50 million levy at Tuesday's special election. 

The $50 million Educational Programs and Operations Levy and Technology Levy renewals fund computers, iPads, and non-core education programs including sports, band and the arts. 

After early ballots came in on Tuesday night. 10,537 voted "yes" for the levy (54.47%) and 8,809 voted "no." 

Voters previously rejected the levy renewals and failed in February’s election. Now that both are on the ballot for the second time in two months, some parents worry they could fail again.

"It’s time for all of us to make a stand. Everybody needs to go out and vote for the levy so it can pass and we can get these things done the proper and the right way," said Terri Sligh, a grandparent in the district.

"It’s very important and it means a lot to our kids," said Kadejah Herron, a parent of four in the district.

All of Herron’s children play sports and are in band. She said if the Educational Programs and Operations Levy does not pass, kids like hers would lose their extracurricular activities. 

"My oldest daughter that’s in high school she asked if she could transfer if it doesn’t potentially go through. And I’m just like oh, we might have to look into those options if it doesn’t pass," said Herron.

Superintendent Tom Seigel said the district is home to the Class 4A football state champions. The team went on to win a bowl game in Las Vegas. But even champions are at risk of program cuts.

"That’s essentially a national championship team. But that program won’t be around next year if we don’t pass the levy. And that’s just one example, there’s just a whole cascade of bad things that will happen if we don’t get the levy passed," said Seigel.

It’s not just students at risk of the cuts. Seigel said 98% of the Educational Programs and Operations Levy pays the salaries for programs the state does not fund, including services like transportation, special education, security, and social work. 

"I hate to say it, but if this doesn’t pass we’re looking at firing 600 people," said Seigel. "This is not pretend, I mean this is real. This is real life. If we don’t have the money we have to fire the people because we won’t have the money to pay them, that’s one thing, and then the impact on the kids."

Seigel said there was only a 15% voter turnout during the February election. Since then, he said the district has been talking to as many people as possible in the community educating them about the levy and why it’s so important.

"People need to understand that if you’re in a school district with a reputation where the local community will not support kids by not supporting a levy, first of all who are you going to get to come work here?" said Seigel.

The superintendent said another rejection could take years for the district to dig itself out of a financial hole and rebuild its reputation. 

State law will not allow the school board to put the levy back on the ballot for a third time in a single year. 

So, if it fails again, the district will cut $30 million from its budget this fall and $20 million in 2023.