Islanders tell two sides of bond story

In a spirited debate last Wednesday over Vashon Island School District’s bond measure, Bob Hennessey contended that the seven-building high school is crowded, substandard and horribly inefficient while Hilary Emmer countered that the district’s proposal amounts to “run-away spending.”

The two, in the first and only debate over the $75.5 million measure, went head to head on several issues, disagreeing over the severity of the problems that plague the aging high school, the tax implications of the measure and whether the proposal amounts to necessities or luxuries.

Hennessey, who chairs the Vashon school board, said deferring this decision “has enormous consequences” — since construction costs are at an all-time low and will only climb as the country pulls out of a recession.

“The bottom line is that we need a high school on this Island. And the surest way to drive families with children off the Island is to have sub-standard buildings,” he told the audience at Courthouse Square.

But Emmer, a tax preparer who has become the Island’s leading critic of the measure, said the costs are too high for a small district, particularly during a time of economic uncertainty. What’s more, she contended, the high school is in disrepair because the district has failed to take care of it.

“Until we have a policy of fully funded maintenance, I don’t want to trust them with new buildings,” she said.

The debate came just a week or so before voters were expected to receive in the mail their ballots for the March 10 election — one of the county’s first all-mail elections. To pass, the measure has to receive 60 percent of the vote, and at least 40 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the last election — last November’s presidential race — have to vote.

Moderated by Ted Clabaugh and sponsored by several Island organizations, the debate was highly structured — with opening comments by each, brief rebuttals and then questions from the audience. And while Hennessey and Emmer sparred over nearly every point, the two were congenial and friendly, trading off questions and occasionally joking.

Several themes dominated the debate, including the district’s approach to maintenance, the costs of the measure and whether an improved campus is necessary for quality education.

Emmer, noting that she used to teach in a public school and her two daughters received a public education, stressed that she’s not anti-education or anti-kids and that standing up before a group of Islanders to oppose the measure wasn’t easy for her. But she said she believes the current proposal contains too many extras — artificial turf for the school’s stadium field, for instance, a larger parking lot and renovations to the old but functional grandstand.

“I’m just not convinced we need everything,” she said. “I don’t think we need to have it all.”

Noting that 130 kids commute from off-Island to attend Vashon’s public schools, Emmer added, “We must be doing something right.”

Hennessey countered that students and teachers shouldn’t be penalized for doing their jobs well despite the conditions.

“We could put our kids in cargo containers and they would learn. ... This is a community that supports education,” he said.

The current archipelago of buildings that now makes up the high school, he added, is highly inefficient. Classroom doors open to the outside, causing heat loss every time students change classes. Each building requires its own heating and ventilating system in need of maintenance.

A bare-bones bond measure that would simply shore up the aging structures — as Emmer and some other critics have called for — “would set in stone this structural system that is abysmally flawed,” he contended.

Hennessey asked the audience if anyone owned a 1973 Ford Pinto; no one raised their hands.

“We have a ’73 Ford Pinto out there. We’re being asked to put in a transmission right now. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Some of Emmer’s sharpest criticisms had to do with the district’s approach to maintenance — a policy of deferring repairs until they become crises and failing to undertake upfront measures to stave off larger expenses down the road, she contended.

“We have a house. Things break. We fix it,” she said.

She noted that when she took a tour in August, she saw a leak in the girls’ shower room that had been dripping since February. “That’s just not OK,” she said.

But Hennessey said the district has already begun to address what he acknowledged has been a failure to adequately invest in maintenance. As evidence, he noted that during the last budget round — a tough one for the district — administrators found a way to add to the maintenance budget.

“We’ve demonstrated a commitment,” he said.

The problem, however, is that maintenance costs come out of the same budget that pays for teachers, books and curriculum, he said; so as long as the buildings are old and in need of repair, the district is locked into a financial equation that bleeds money from essential academic needs.

“We’ve set ourselves up with a system that is broken and flawed,” he told the audience.

The two also sparred over just how much the bond measure costs.

Emmer said she believes the district is obfuscating the issue by focusing on the tax rate, $1.91 per $1,000 of assessed value, rather than the actual costs to voters. By taking tax rates and comparing them over the years, as the district is doing, school officials are failing to take into account the dramatic increases in home values on the Island over the last several years.

To illustrate her point, she offered up an analysis she undertook of the five school board members’ homes, using data she got from the King County Assessor’s Web site. Hennessey, for instance, paid on average $43.22 in property taxes for schools since 1996; were the bond measure to pass, his tax liability would rise to $70.35, a 159 percent increase, she said.

When one audience member questioned her analysis, noting she did not take into account inflation, she answered that she could just compare a homeowner’s current school-related tax with what it would become should this measure pass — and the jump would be even higher — in Hennessey’s case, close to 200 percent.

“Using a levy rate in isolation does not give a true picture of what’s happening,” she said.

Hennessey countered that the dramatic increase in taxes that Emmer highlighted is misleading, since homeowners’ school-related taxes were particularly low in 2008. He conceded that it’s a tough time to ask voters for money but said it’s foolish to think the Island will get a better deal if it waits.

“Contractors are hungry. Public works projects are getting more bids. ... If not now, when?” he asked.

“If one is concerned about the lowest income among us, will it be cheaper in three years or in 10?”

John Candy, an Islander, asked Hennessey if the board could commit “to finding ways to drop the cost.”

“We’ve been put into an uncomfortable situation,” he said. “Could we reduce costs significantly?”

Hennessey answered that he is “absolutely committed to returning money to taxpayers” and that he would “vociferously oppose any new spending that’s not in the plan.”

“I’m paying these taxes, too, and now you know the value of my home,” he added. “We have to face you all in the aisles at Thriftway. I’ll safeguard this money like it’s my own.”

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