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School board endorses new Vashon High School building

In its first round of decisions on an ambitious rebuild of Vashon High School, the school district’s board of directors agreed to ask voters to approve $77.7 million in renovations and structures, including a new building for classrooms and a synthetic-turf field and track.

At its meeting Thursday night, the board took what board chair Bob Hennessey called “our first cut at crafting the plan that will be on the ballot this February.”

On a 4-to-1 vote, the board decided to put forward so-called Option B, which calls for a new, 40,000-square-foot building for classrooms, the renovation of several older buildings at the sprawling campus and district-wide improvements to its telecommunications systems.

The board then agreed — on two more 4-to-1 votes — to include improvements to the high school theater and the installation of a synthetic-turf field and track in the funding proposal that it will put before voters next February, bringing the cost of the package to $77.7 million.

Board members delayed decisions on two other line items — a new secondary gym and improvements to the high school grandstand, with a combined price tag of $5.2 million — until the next board meeting on Nov. 6, when staff and consultants would be able to provide answers to a few outstanding questions about the two items.

The board will vote at its Nov. 13 meeting on a final package to offer up to voters, Hennessey said.

“We’re 90 percent of the way there,” Hennessey said after the meeting.

Superintendent Terry Lindquist agreed, calling the board’s actions Thursday night “a huge, huge step. It’s a bold step and a needed step.”

John “Oz” Osborne, a champion of a campus makeover who has served on a committee exploring the issue for nearly three years, said he was pleased that the board is finally poised to deliver a package to Island voters.

“What we’ve accomplished is bringing a coherent plan to the voters — one that’s fair to academics and to co-curricular activities like sports and theater,” he said. “It addresses the real capital needs of the district for the next 25 years. It’s pretty close to a comprehensive solution.”

But board member Dan Chasan, the lone dissenter in the series of votes, said he thinks the board has not fully vetted some critical issues, such as how it will fund the maintenance of a large, new classroom building and whether its size is being dictated, at least in part, by the assumption that the district will work to attract off-Island students. Student enrollment is currently on the decline.

“We haven’t had that sort of public discussion, and I think we should,” he said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t accommodate off-Island kids. But these are discussions we should be undertaking publicly.”

He also said voters should be able to support extra items, such as improvements to athletic facilities, rather than having to decide on one package with all items bundled together.

The proposal the board is in the process of putting forward, he added, “is a lot of money.”

Should voters approve a campus makeover of $77 to $80 million, property owners would pay between $2.20 and $2.35 per $1,000 of assessed value over the 20-year course of the bond — or about $1,100 a year on a house assessed at $500,000 or $690 on a house assessed at $300,000.

Supporters of the bond measure, however, say that tax rate has to be seen in context: For the past 12 years, Island property owners have paid on average $1.58 per $1,000 of assessed value to support the school district’s capital needs, debt that has largely been retired this year.

Board members also argue that officials have no choice but to do something to upgrade the high school, a sprawling and unworkable campus, they say, that is in bad shape because of years of deferred maintenance, changing academic needs and some questionable architectural decisions made by previous boards.

The more modest Option A — which would have renovated buildings but not led to the creation of a new one — would cost voters $57.3 million. For about 20 percent more, Hennessey noted, the district can create what he termed a “high-quality learning environment.”

“We could continue to house our kids in Warsaw Pact-quality schools. We could teach our kids in cargo containers,” he added. “But that’s not the standard, and that’s not the question. Teaching our kids the cheapest way possible in the most barebones facility is not what I aspire to as a director of the Vashon school board.”

Some residents who have been paying close attention to the school district’s process, however, said they were troubled by the price tag, which the board at one point said would not top $70 million. It comes on top of a decision to pay teachers more and an announcement that a new superintendent would command a higher salary than Lindquist currently receives, some noted.

“I don’t know where they think this money is coming from,” said Hilary Emmer, an Island activist.

“This is so much more than they were initially telling people,” she added. “Do they know the economy just dropped and that nobody has a 401K anymore?”

But board members, who have worked assiduously to garner public input, said they believe support for this package may in fact be strong on the Island.

At Thursday’s meeting, district officials offered up the results from a professional telephone survey of 250 Islanders that was conducted by CFM Research earlier this month. According to the poll, 63 percent of the respondents support a $68 million building project, 76 percent favor upgrading classroom technology and 64 percent support improved practice fields at the high school.

About 60 percent said they’d rather move forward with school improvements now “than wait for the economy to improve and run the risk of higher construction costs,” a summary of the poll reports. And 65 percent rated the condition of the high school’s classroom facilities poor to fair.

But support was not as strong for new synthetic-turf fields and a secondary gym, which about half of the respondents said they’d support. And only half called the condition of the high school’s athletic facilities poor to fair.

Steve Ellison, a father of three who has attended numerous school board meetings over the last year or so, said he’s sympathetic to what the board members are attempting to do and is impressed by both their dedication and hard work. But he said he thinks the board has a lot of work to do if it’s to convince 60 percent of the voters — the margin needed for a bond measure to pass — to support a proposal that could easily end up topping $80 million.

“I completely understand why we’re going there,” he said of the proposal. “But their support is right on the margin.”

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