School board, in surprise move, defers vote on high school plan

The Vashon Island school board, slated to take a final vote Monday night on its proposed $79 million high school makeover, deferred its decision until next week amid questions about how to potentially lower the costs of the ambitious plan.

The move, however, angered several Islanders who attended Monday night’s meeting, many of whom came in an apparent effort to encourage the board to support the full package.

When the board voted 3 to 2 to defer the vote, several Islanders got up and walked out, some of them groaning, sighing or speaking angrily about the decision.

“We did not elect them for hand-wringing and indecision,” said a frustrated Cheryl Pruett after the vote. “They’re parsing over pennies.”

But Laura Wishik, one of the board members who put forward an alternative proposal Monday, said she believed the board had no choice but to explore other options.

“In this economic climate, it will not pass if we put a $79 million package before voters,” she told the crowd. “I’ve heard that from people on limited incomes — that this will be a stretch.”

The decision to defer a final decision comes after more than a month of incremental votes on the package, resulting last month in the board endorsing in principle a $79.45 million bond measure that would go to voters next spring. If passed, the proposal would largely remake the high school campus, resulting in a new 40,000-square-foot classroom building, several remodeled structures, renovations to the theater, a new synthetic track, a new secondary gym and improvements to the grandstand.

But two board members, concerned by the size of the final price tag, put forward amendments Monday in an attempt to lower costs or give voters additional choices. Wishik suggested breaking the package into two propositions, letting voters decide on classroom improvements — a base package of $71 million — before deciding on a second proposition, $8 million in improvements to sports facilities.

Kathy Jones took another approach, offering up a motion to build the second gym and grandstand improvements only if the district’s conservative cost estimates and contingency funds result in some extra money at the end of the project.

“I’m trying to respond to feedback we’ve gotten from people finding it tough to support the whole package in these tough economic times,” she told her colleagues on the board.

But the crowd — nearly filling the library at McMurray Middle School — was largely opposed to the two amendments, and in comment after comment Islanders spoke, sometimes passionately, about the importance of athletic facilities and the positive role organized sports play in shaping young people.

“I would not have gone to college if it had not been for athletics,” said David Chapman, a public defender.

“This has been a long, drawn-out ordeal. We need to look at this as an entire community and as something that we’ll be proud of for years to come,” he added to loud applause.

Others took issue with Wishik’s proposal to split the vote, suggesting a two-pronged approach could end up spiking the entire deal.

“If we split it, I guarantee it — the second one won’t pass, and the first one will be in jeopardy,” said Bill Ameling, a park district commissioner.

Still others said the difference in costs, while seemingly significant, would not save the individual home-owner much in property taxes.

“It’s impolitic to say it, but it’s not even material,” said Scott Benner, referring to the amount of money people would save if athletic facilities were shaved from the proposal.

A few, however, told the board that it would be wise to find a way to lower the costs — a price tag that at one point the board said would not top $70 million.

May Gerstle, noting that she’s considered a “perfect voter” because she’s never missed an election and has never voted against a school bond, said the size of the proposed measure gives her pause.

Urging the board to support Wishik’s two-pronged approach, she added, “It gives our community the kind of choice they need, and if they see that — especially older people — they’ll vote for it.”

After nearly an hour of public testimony, each of the five board members talked about their stance on the two amendments, with two members — Chair Bob Hennessey and John “Oz” Osborne — strongly endorsing the full $79 million package.

“I think we need to go forward as one community, as one school districit, with one message,” Hennessey said.

But a number of procedural moves then unfolded — with Jones first withdrawing her amendment and then saying she’d like more time to determine if it were financially feasible.

Wishik, meanwhile, also

changed gears, noting that because she didn’t have enough votes on the board for her two-pronged approach, she wanted to replace her motion with one that simply deleted the second gym and grandstand from the proposal altogether.

Finally, with Jones asking for more information and confusion about the many motions before the board, Wishik said the board should give itself a bit more time to consider the matter.

“It’s no big deal,” she said about the suggestion to wait a week on the vote.

When Hennessey balked, Wishik made a motion to hold off for a week; it passed with Wishik, Jones and Dan Chasan supporting it.

“My sense is that the board is deadlocked,” Hennessey said after the meeting.

“We have to power through this to get something to the voters,” he added. “I fully expect we will.”

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