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School board opts for a $79.45 million campus plan

The Vashon Island School Board, after months of discussion, analysis and debate, is ready to ask voters to approve a $79.45 million bond measure to fund a far-reaching makeover of the Island’s aging high school campus.

Should it pass, the measure would enable the district to construct a 40,000-square-foot classroom building and a new, secondary gym, install a synthetic-turf field, create a new track and renovate the grandstand to make it accessible to people with physical disabilities. The measure also includes improvements to the high school’s theater, renovations to several existing buildings and an improved, district-wide data and telecom-system.

“As a principal and an educator, I’m absolutely thrilled,” Susan Hanson, principal of Vashon High School, said after the board’s decision. “I think it’ll provide an opportunity for students and staff to be supported by the facility, rather than accommodating it. ... It’s a good investment for the community.”

But if last Thursday’s school board meeting is any indication, there will likely be a lively debate in the community about the bond measure, slated to come before voters early next year. Shortly before one of two votes at the meeting, long-time Vashon Park Board commissioner Bill Ameling urged the board to agree to include a second gym in the package, noting that gym space is at a premium on the Island and that if the school board doesn’t take it on, the park district likely will have to.

“It makes no difference if the school district builds it or the park district builds it; it comes out of your taxes,” Ameling said. “People on the Island use Island facilities.”

“I disagree,” Islander Guy Strickland responded. “It won’t be fine for the people who can least afford it.”

Thursday’s decisions put the final touches on a renovation package that the current board has been working on for months and that has been in some phase of discussion for years.

Its completion has been an incremental process. At its Oct. 23 meeting, the five-member board agreed on several elements to include in the measure, putting off a couple of final decisions until its meeting last Thursday night. At that meeting, it decided on the last two additions to the package — the new gym and a renovation of the old grandstand, built by the community 48 years ago in part with recycled materials from the old Nike missile site at Sunrise Ridge.

The measure will come to the board for a final vote later this month, when the board is expected to offer up the entire package to the voters for their approval in February.

Bob Hennessey, who chairs the board, said he doubts anything will be said at Thursday’s meeting that will change the board’s mind or alter what he called “a very deliberate process.”

“We’re at the end of four years of process, and I’d be surprised if we heard anything that hasn’t already been said,” he added.

The last two items for consideration — particularly the secondary gym — prompted considerable discussion by the board as well as spirited community input.

Some Islanders told the board additional gym space is badly needed. Because of enormous demand for the facility, the JV high school basketball team practices at 5:45 a.m. every weekday, and the Island’s junior basketball club — which organizes teams of boys and girls in grades kindergarten to sixth — spends hours every week working out its complex practice schedule because of the limited facilities, said Foss Miller, president of the club.

David Hackett, who chairs the park district board, said a study of the park and school district recreational and athletic uses underscored the need for a second gym.

“If we do take the plunge, ... it’s a decision we won’t regret over the course of the 40-year life of the building,” he told the board.

But when it came time for the board to vote on whether to include the gym — a $3.1 million item — in the package, some members expressed concern.

“I have a lot of angst over this one,” Laura Wishik, the board’s vice chair, told her colleagues.

She said she sympathized fully with the needs Islanders had expressed but added that she was nervous about the “sticker shock” voters will face when they see the price tag for the final bond measure.

“I appreciate what Foss had to say,” she added, “But we’re a rural community, and we don’t have everything, and that’s part of the lifestyle here. ... There are trade-offs.”

Board member Dan Chasan also questioned it, suggesting that these “stand-alone projects,” as they’re called, should be batted to the voters for approval, not included in one package.

But board member John “Oz” Osborne noted that the gym was built in the “pre-Title 9 world,” a reference to the groundbreaking law that required public schools to provide girls with equal access to sports programs, and that its inclusion in the bond measure gave the board “our one chance to do a comprehensive solution.”

Hennessey, who had been waffling on the secondary gym, concurred.

“I feel like we are paying for the mistakes of our forefathers and foremothers, who took a piecemeal approach. ... I feel a need to do it right,” he said.

The board ultimately voted to include a second gym in the package on a three-to-one vote, with Chasan voting against it and Wishik abstaining.

When the last potential addition to the measure came up — either a renovation or a complete rebuild of the high school grandstand — the board again discussed it vigorously and decided to include a renovation of the grandstand in the package, a nearly $1 million item. It was again three to one, with Wishik voting against it and Chasan abstaining.

The bond measure is expected to cost property owners $1.99 per $1,000 of assessed value — or $796 per year for a home assessed at $400,000 and $995 a year for a home assessed at $500,000. Board members note that Islanders, until a bond measure for Chautauqua retired this year, had been paying a tax rate of $1.58 per $100,000.

Wishik, after the vote, said she’s concerned by the size of the bond measure, particularly in light of the fact that several school capital bonds failed in last week’s election.

“I feel we’re putting a bond package out that is really going to be difficult for people who have a limited income,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult for my family.”

Hennessey concurred but added that it’s important to view this issue with a long horizon.

“This is a horrible time to be asking voters for money, but this is a 30- to 50-year decision, and it needs to be viewed in that context,” he said.

“I feel a great sense of relief to have arrived at a package and a sense of the daunting challenge ahead of us to get voter approval,” he added.

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