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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: School Board should be leery of ignoring a loud, clear vote on the downtown stadium

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 16, 2018

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

The voters were asked.

The Spokane School Board should be very careful about ignoring their answer.

Among the more interesting outcomes in last week’s election was the split vote on the big city-school-stadium combo package. Voters backed expensive measures to improve schools and libraries, but turned a thumbs-down on putting a new sports stadium downtown.

A big thumbs-down: 65 percent said if the school district builds a new stadium, keep it at the Joe Albi site.

This puts the pro-stadium forces in the school district in a true bind, given how hard they pressed for the downtown stadium. Already, calls to simply disregard the vote have been raised, along with renewed, impassioned arguments for the perfect suitability of a downtown football stadium for high school games.

But the elected members of the school board and the administrators in downtown Spokane should tread very carefully if they consider ignoring the vote. Debates about whether the city should have been doing the asking or not (via an advisory vote) or whether the mayor and others in City Hall should have been pushing the downtown stadium as hard and fast as they did in the face of questions from the school board are now moot, in my view.

The voters were asked.

Their answer was clear.

I don’t say this because I necessarily oppose a downtown stadium. I like the idea of more activity downtown – a busy city core is a good thing, even if it comes with parking and traffic challenges. I find the arguments for the suitability of the downtown location fairly persuasive, too, and see how it would fit into an overall plan for adding new schools and replacement schools that could be really transformative all across the city.

But the stadium piece of this enormous package never fit neatly with the rest of it and struck too many people as the wrong priority, given the other proposed improvements. Rick Romero, the city administrator who worked with schools administrator Mark Anderson to cook up the plan, called the stadium “the icing on the cake” – a metaphor that works on both sides of the argument: appealingly delicious or nutritionally empty.

The stadium plan was rushed, pitched poorly and hampered by confusing changes in expectations about parking requirements – and it always felt like it had the potential to bring the whole thing down.

Which would have been truly unfortunate. The overall package is an ingenuous idea – a unique combination of city and school efforts to finance a generational change in schools, libraries and other services.

The stadium was always the least important piece of it.

And yet it often felt as though some officials – particularly Mayor David Condon – saw it as the most important.

I think that had as much to do with the overwhelming defeat of the downtown stadium as concerns about parking and traffic. Fair or not, a lot of people simply saw it as overreach, as a misbegotten priority compared to schools and libraries, and another example of sports overshadowing other school priorities.

There were three votes to the overall package. The schools asked for $495 million to build three new middle schools, replace three others, and undertake a wide range of other projects – and got it. The city asked for $77 million for new and improved libraries – and got it. And, in the oddest part of the thing, the city asked voters whether they preferred the current Albi location or a downtown stadium. The city put this question on the ballot after the school board balked over parking concerns; whether they should have done so is a fair question among many fair questions about the way the stadium plan has been sold to the public.

But it shouldn’t have any bearing whatsoever on whether the school district listens to the vote or not.

Voters simply bombed this idea. It wasn’t close. Some people, in urging the schools to ignore this vote, have cited the fact that city officials in 1971 ignored a vote against bond-financed improvements to downtown to clear the way for Expo ’74.

But that vote had 57 percent support. It fell short of a required supermajority. Going forward in the face of that vote isn’t remotely the same as going forward against the wishes of two-thirds of the voters.

And yet there’s a very good chance we haven’t seen the last of the downtown stadium idea. Explicit calls to disregard the vote have been raised, notably by two of my colleagues writing columns in the S-R sports pages. Both rested their arguments in large part on the idea that voters might have been unnecessarily confused about the need for additional parking downtown.

But my sense – perhaps incorrect – is that the parking issue wasn’t the primary driver of the vote. I think that opposition was much simpler, and the confusion much less focused than that. A lot of people simply wondered if there wasn’t a serious priority problem, putting the stadium at the head of a list of projects to improve schools and city services, and a lot of people were confused about details.

The downtown stadium supporters might have a better case to make than the one they made. Perhaps they should try again.

But, having made this case this way, they’ve heard what the voters had to say.

Simply ignoring them would be the height of hubris.

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