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A school bond primer: Making sense of the numbers

Critics say the current high school’s configuration works poorly, in part because students have to walk outside between their classes several times a day. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Critics say the current high school’s configuration works poorly, in part because students have to walk outside between their classes several times a day.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

In any campaign, numbers can get confusing — and especially so in a multi-million-dollar construction bond measure.

The Beachcomber has tried to make sense of some of those numbers, using information gathered from experts outside of the Vashon Island School District as well as from people involved in the campaign.

Ballots get mailed to voters on Jan. 19. This is an all-mail election; ballots must be postmarked by Feb. 8. The district needs a 60 percent supermajority to pass the measure and a turnout of 40 percent of those who voted in the last General Election.

Q: What will the bond measures cover and how much will they cost?

A: Proposition 1 carries a $47.7 million price tag. It would enable the district to build a new 40,000-square-foot classroom building, renovate the current main classroom building (known as Building A) for other uses, demolish buildings B and C, make minor improvements to several other buildings, upgrade the mechanical systems at McMurray Middle School and Chautauqua Elementary School and improve the campus-wide technology infrastructure.

Proposition 2 will cost $3.5 million. It would allow the district to rebuild the school track — currently not up to league-wide standards — and put synthetic turf on the stadium field. The top layer of the synthetic turf is expected to last about 12 years. In today’s dollars, the cost to replace that top layer would be about $675,000, funds that are not built into the current proposal.

Q: What are the projects’ prices per square foot and how do those figures compare to industry standards?

A: The way the school district’s consultants have conceived the project, the hard costs — or the brick and mortar costs — would amount to $288 per square foot for the new classroom building and $281 per square foot for the renovation of Building A. There are other costs associated with both of those two projects — including site preparation, permit fees, building demolition and contingencies — that the district’s consultants have put into a category called soft costs.

Dividing a project into hard costs and soft costs is standard within the industry, although districts vary in how they make the distinction between hard and soft costs. As a result, apples-to-apples comparisons between districts is difficult. However, Doug Nichols, director of construction services for Educational Service District 112, one of several independent offices created by the state to provide services to local school districts, says Vashon’s division between hard and soft costs falls within the realm of an average and appropriate break-down.

For comparison, he pointed to a new high school the Edmonds School District built in 2007 for $331 per square foot and the New South Lake High School in the Seattle School District, which was built for $321 per square foot. Because construction costs have fallen about 20 percent since then, he said, Vashon’s price-per-square-foot numbers seem about average.

Q: What about national data that show high schools in the Seattle area are averaging $163 per square foot, as cited in a recent letter to the editor in The Beachcomber?

A: Those numbers come from RSMeans, a division of Reed Construction Data Co., a national firm that provides construction cost data for the building industry. Barbara Balboni, a senior engineer for RSMeans, based outside of Boston, Mass., said the firm’s numbers represent a building with virtually no amenities, what she called “a little more than a shell.” It doesn’t include, for instance, the elevators a multi-story building would have, furnishings, fixtures or equipment.

For that reason, she said, it has little relevance to the discussion on Vashon. “You have to be very careful when using these numbers,” she said.

Q: How much will voters pay in taxes, were these two propositions to pass, and how do those tax figures compare to previous years?

A: Using a $450,000 home, which is close to the average price on Vashon, according to the King County Assessor, here’s how a homeowner’s school-related taxes would change.

In 2010, the most recent property tax bill homeowners paid, school-related taxes cost $2.57 per $1,000 of assessed value — or $1,156 for a $450,000 home. This year, because of levies voters approved last year, the tax rate is $3.12, so school-related taxes will cost $1,404 for a $450,000 home. If the bond measure were to pass, the rate would climb to $3.48, leading to a school-related tax bill of $1,566 for a $450,000 home.

District officials have said taxes will increase $11 a month. Here’s how they get that number: They’re looking at how much the owner of a $400,000 home will pay in bond-related taxes this year, the last year property owners will pay for a voter-approved bond to repair Chautauqua Elementary School. They’re then comparing that figure to how much the owner of a $400,000 home will pay in bond-related taxes next year, if the bond measures to repair and replace the high school pass.

Q: Is the project bigger or more expensive to accommodate off-Island students?

A: School officials say the new classroom building, which will have 20 classrooms all told, has two additional classrooms to accommodate the larger population off-Island students provide. Brian Carter, the project’s lead architect, said it’s impossible to identify the exact costs of that additional square footage, because so much of the costly infrastructure — such as elevators and extensive site work — would have to be done at the same costs even if the building were slightly smaller.

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