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Vashon school bond measure: A primer

An honors math class, taught by Steve Sears, is particularly crowded; district officials say it’s an example of the difficulties they face.  - Leslie Brown/staff photo
An honors math class, taught by Steve Sears, is particularly crowded; district officials say it’s an example of the difficulties they face.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

Islanders have received their ballots in the mail.

After years of discussion, debate and decision-making by district officials, the issue is now before the voters: Will the Island endorse Vashon Island School District’s request for $75.5 million to restore and rebuild a high school many say is in desperate need of a makeover? Or will Vashon voters, known for their historically strong support of public education, send the district a different message, asking officials to repackage their proposal and come back with something that costs less?

In an effort to help those Islanders who are still wrestling with the decision, The Beachcomber has put together a list of questions that explore some of the most basic issues surrounding the bond measure as well as some of the more complex issues. Answers have come from district officials, critics of the bond measure and The Beachcomber’s own knowledge of the debate.

The Beachcomber also took a tour of the high school recently with Island photographer Mike Urban, a 1980 graduate of Vashon High School. He took pictures that captured what district officials say is wrong with the aging structure.

We hope this primer on the bond measure — an overview of the conditions, the costs and the proposed makeover — will help Islanders cast informed votes.

Ballots must be postmarked by March 10. Because bond measures require a supermajority, 60 percent of those who cast ballots have to approve the measure. The election also requires a turnout of 40 percent of those who voted in the November election — or 2,903 voters.

Q: What will the bond measure cover?

A: Some new buildings would be erected if the measure were to pass. First and foremost, the district would build a 40,000-square-foot, centrally located classroom building that officials say would provide classrooms large enough to enable project-based learning. The classrooms would also be well-lit and well-ventilated, and the building would provide workspaces for all teachers. Because it would have only a couple of main entrances, the classroom building, district officials say, would also be safer and more energy-efficient than the current situation, where many classrooms have doors that lead directly to the outdoors.

Another new building would be a secondary gym, complementing the current one, which district officials say is oversubscribed by both school and club sports, particularly in the winter months.

Several other buildings would be “repurposed,” district officials say. The A Building, currently the main high school structure, for instance, would be renovated to include a larger library, an improved theater, updated computer labs and space for vocational programs. And the brick building next to the tennis courts — built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Roosevelt administration — which is currently used for music and art, would be renovated for school district offices.

Other improvements include:

• a new rubberized track;

• a synthetic-turf stadium field;

• a remodeled grandstand;

• improvements to the high school theater, including the installation of a sound room and dressing rooms;

• updated technology equipment, including the installation of “a fiber-optic backbone” that would improve data capacity and speed.

Q: How much will the bond cost taxpayers?

A: With interest, the bond measure is expected to cost Island property owners $150 million over the course of 20 years.

District officials say that a levy rate of $1.91 per $1,000 of assessed value — or about $955 a year for a home valued at $500,000 — will likely bring in enough annual tax revenue to service the debt. They also say this reflects only a modest increase over what taxpayers have historically paid for school-related capital projects. The average levy rate for capital costs over the past 12 years, the district says, is $1.58; thus, they contend, this bond measure will only cost taxpayers about $14 a month more than what property owners on Vashon are used to paying.

Critics, however, say that the district has failed to take into account the rapid escalation in property values on Vashon over the past several years. According to the county assessor’s office, assessed values on Vashon climbed by an average of nearly 19 percent between 2007 and 2008 and climbed another 9 percent last year over this year.

As a result, while the levy rate does not suggest a dramatic increase in homeowners’ tax bills, the actual amount property owners would pay would jump quite a bit for many homeowners, according to Islander Hilary Emmer, one of the most outspoken critics of the plan. She took a look at the board members’ homes, for instance, determined the average amount they’ve paid over the past 14 years in taxes for school-related capital needs and found that their school-related tab would climb 75 to 160 percent over that 14-year average were this proposal to pass.

Q: Will the costs of the bond measure change over time?

A: Yes. The company underwriting the bond has built in a 3 percent increase in debt service over time, meaning the amount of money the district will need to bring in each year to retire the debt will increase year over year by 3 percent. Both the underwriter and district officials say this is a conservative increase and that the combination of rising home values and new construction on the Island should cover those costs without forcing the levy rate to climb higher.

Some critics of the measure, however, say the district has made it sound as though the rate is flat when in fact tax revenues will have to increase every year to retire the debt. And if housing values fall, the levy rate will have to climb even higher to cover the debt, they say.

Q: When will the project begin?

A: If the measure passes, the district will work on the design and permitting for the project until January 2011, put it out to bid in March 2011 and begin construction in June or July of 2011. The new classroom building would be completed by the summer of 2012, according to the district’s timeline. Buildings A and D would then be renovated, with an eye towards completing them by July 2013.

Q: District officials say this is a good time to build because contractors are hungry for work. But if bids don’t go out until March 2011, how can they use that argument?

A: It’s impossible to know what will be happening in the economy in two years, but district officials say most experts believe the economy won’t turn around that quickly and that the current lull will last at least two years.

What’s more, interest rates on bonds are currently low, making the cost of borrowing money cheaper. Were the bond measure to pass, the district’s underwriter would issue the bonds quickly, taking advantage of those low rates.

Q: What about maintenance? If the school is in such disrepair now, why should voters believe the district will take care of a new campus?

A: That’s one of critics’ biggest complaints about the current situation. They say that a policy of deferred maintenance has helped to create the current state of affairs — what one critic calls “demolition by neglect” — and argue that the district should not be allowed to build new structures until it has made its commitment to maintenance ironclad and crystal clear.

But district officials say they’ve already begun to alter the course — a policy of poor maintenance, they add, that was promulgated by previous administrations. During the last budget round, despite a tough financial picture, board members were able to increase maintenance staff and funding.

The board has directed the superintendent to develop a plan to “fully fund maintenance” — a plan that will be incorporated into the development of the 2009-10 school district budget.

Q: Why should Vashon property owners pay for a new school that off-Island kids will attend?

A: District officials say off-Island kids bring in more revenue to the operating fund than they cost. What’s more, they say, the new classroom building probably only has one or two more classrooms to accommodate students from off-Island.

By law, the district is to accept out-of-district kids on a space availability basis. District officials say these kids bring diversity to the district as well as funds that enable them to offer more electives.

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