Most school funding measures around state are approved, but Seattle voters defeat school levy and reject fluoridation proposal on March 12, 1963.

  • By Heather Trescases and Kit Oldham
  • Posted 12/12/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4043

On March 12, 1963, voters in Spokane, Walla Walla, Bellingham, Tacoma, and other cities around the state approve most, but not all, of the many local tax levies and bond issues on the election ballot, the majority of which provide funding for schools. However Seattle voters shock school officials and supporters by rejecting an $8.75 million operating levy, which wins a majority but not the 60 percent required for approval. Seattle school officials will try again in May and narrowly gain the necessary margin. For the second time in just over a decade, Seattle voters handily defeat a proposal to fluoridate the city's water supply; five years later, Seattle voters will approve a third fluoridation measure. Voters in a large area east of Bellevue decisively reject a proposed annexation into that city; as with the Seattle measures, the defeat will prove temporary as much of the area will be annexed into Bellevue in later years.

School Funding Measures 

Measures asking voters to fund public schools were (and remain) a regular feature of municipal elections in Washington, and 1963 was no exception. Voters in various districts were asked either to approve general school-tax levies to fund ongoing operations and/or the issuance of bonds to fund construction or other one-time needs. Tax levies were particularly challenging for school districts, because simply winning a majority of the votes cast was not sufficient to gain approval: by law approval required both a specified minimum turnout and a winning majority of 60 percent or more.

Despite the high threshold, Washington voters generally supported school levies, and most of those on the ballot across the state in 1963 gained the votes necessary for passage. Voters in eight of nine school districts in Spokane County approved tax levies, as did their counterparts in Sumner and Tacoma and in the Bethel and Peninsula school districts near Tacoma. A bond measure in the Peninsula district failed, but bond measures to fund new school construction were approved in Bellingham and Walla Walla. Not all the bonds on the ballot were for schools. In Tacoma five out of seven city bond issues won, but in Puyallup a bond issue to fund repairs to the city's sewer and water system had a nearly two-to-one majority of the votes cast, but fell 108 votes short of the turnout needed to validate the measure.

Like those elsewhere in the state, Seattle voters traditionally strongly backed the city's public schools, and not since 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, had they failed to give a school-tax levy the necessary 60 percent approval. Despite opposition from the Seattle Apartment Operators' Association, a levy to raise $8.75 million in operating funds for Seattle schools had widespread support, and school officials' primary concern heading into the March 12 vote was not the 60 percent requirement but whether voter turnout would be sufficient to validate the election. With the hotly debated fluoridation issue on the ballot, light turnout was not a problem.

However, when the votes were counted, Seattle Public Schools officials were stunned to find that only 56.8 percent of voters had supported the levy. The district, which had planned to begin hiring new teachers needed for the coming school year right after the vote, had to put hiring on hold. School officials and supporters regrouped, and went back to voters in May. This time some business groups strongly opposed the tax levy, and the result of the May 21 vote was in doubt throughout the count. In the end, the levy was approved with 61.15 percent of the vote, slightly more than the required margin. District officials were finally able to begin hiring teachers for the fall, but superintendent Ernest W. Campbell warned that because of the delay in getting started the district would not be able to hire as many teachers as needed in the time remaining, resulting in some increase in class that fall.

Seattle Fluoridation

Since the early 1950s, the U.S. Public Health Service and other health authorities had been actively promoting the addition of fluoride to drinking water supplies as a means of combating tooth decay. A fluoridation proposal had been presented to Seattle voters in 1952, when it was defeated by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Fluoridation returned to the ballot in 1963 as a result of the efforts of James A. Rafferty and his group Fluoridation Inc. Rafferty's supporters included many medical and dental groups, the state and local health departments, and the Seattle PTA.

Proponents argued that fluoridation was part of a four-way program to fight dental decay. The first three steps, as stated by the Seattle-King County Health Department, were brushing teeth, proper diet, and regular dental checkups. A Fluoridation Inc. official explained: "The fourth step would be to make the tooth more resistant to decay if this is possible. ... And since it is possible through fluoridation, it seems only common sense to take this precaution" ("Tooth Decay Report Hit ...").

Opponents of fluoridation, in Seattle and across the country, disputed studies showing fluoride's effects on tooth decay and argued that the health risks of adding even small amounts of fluoride (known to be toxic in larger quantities) had not been adequately studied. They also objected to the costs fluoridation imposed on taxpayers, and especially to having the practice forced on them, saying that "it smacks of compulsory medication" ("Hot Local Issues ..."). Groups such as the Committee to Save the Children from Dangerous Effects of Fluoridation asserted that an enemy could tinker with fluoridation machinery and poison the entire city.

The 1963 fluoridation proposal was defeated by a vote of 58,593 to 43,747. Following the referendum Dr. Eugene F. McElmeel, president of the Pure Water Association that he and others had formed to fight the 1963 ballot measure, said "We certainly urge the dental profession and other backers of fluoridation to start a program of education to sell people on the idea of using fluorides voluntarily. They can count on our cooperation" ("Voluntary Fluoride Use Urged ...").

Fluoridation supporters tried a third time in 1968, and in that November's general election Seattle voters approved fluoridation of the Seattle water system (which also supplied water to many other King County communities, although those outside Seattle were not able to vote on fluoridation measures). In January 1970, after some delays in obtaining necessary chemicals and equipment, the Seattle water department began fluoridating the supply; as of 2014 Seattle water continued to be fluoridated.

Bellevue Annexation 

According to a Seattle Times article two days before the March 12, 1963, vote, "[i]f the fluoridation issue causes blood pressure to rise in Seattle, annexation ... [does] the same east of Lake Washington" ("Hot Local Issues ..."). The City of Bellevue, which had been growing rapidly since its incorporation a decade earlier, sought to annex some 14 square miles of unincorporated King County adjoining the city boundaries. The population of the area that Bellevue officials wanted to annex was considerably greater than Bellevue's current total of 15,000 residents, and would have boosted the city's population to 38,000.

However, on election day voters in the proposed annexation area, which included Sherwood Forest, Ivanhoe Park, Lake Hills, Robinswood, Woodridge, Norwood Village, Factoria, Lake Heights, and Newport Hills, turned down the proposal to become part of Bellevue by a landslide margin. But like the defeated school-levy and fluoridation supporters in Seattle, Bellevue boosters did not give up and over the years (not all at once as proposed in 1963), much of the area proposed for annexation in 1963 (along with various other areas) was annexed into the City of Bellevue.


Sources:

"Controversial Fluoridation Plan Now up to Seattle City Council: Rafferty's Petition Puts Councilmen on Horns of Dilemma; Opponents See Sinister Communist Plots Behind Proposal," The Argus, August 24, 1962, p. 8; "Tooth-Decay Report Hit By Fluoride Foe," The Seattle Times, March 10, 1963, p. 12; "Hot Local Issues In School Elections," Ibid., "School Election in May Expected," Ibid., March 13, 1969, p. 1; "Voluntary Fluoride Use Urged by Group," Ibid., p. 9; "Average Class Size to Grow Despite Passage of Levy," Ibid., May 22, 1963, p. 1; File 247766, Folder 9, Box 1, Series 1802-B4, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; "Annexation History," City of Bellevue website accessed February 19, 2014 (http://www.ci.bellevue.wa.us/pdf/IT/annex_ab.pdf); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle water department begins fluoridation of water supply on January 12, 1970." (by Heather Trescases and Kit Oldham) and "Bellevue -- Thumbnail History" (by Alan J. Stein), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 16, 2014).
Note: This essay was revised and substantially expanded on March 3, 2014, to include additional results of the March 1963 election.


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