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School board’s ambitious plan still needs some work
By STEVE ELLISON
For The Beachcomber
As our school district considers a massive remodeling of our high school and selecting a new superintendent, one thing is certain: Change is coming. As important as these issues are, there are bigger issues.
First, budget constraints are forcing dramatic changes in our programs as demonstrated by the new blended grade classes and the increase in kindergarten class size. And second, although we are among the best districts in the United States, the country is failing to keep pace with the developed world: We need to strive to be among the best of the best, not the best of the mediocre. To sensibly address these issues, we must honestly consider how they fit in a comprehensive vision of education on Vashon. The success of each depends on how well they work together as a whole.
Improving the capital needs of the high school is a pressing issue. Undoubtedly, there are portions of the high school that cry for upgrade or replacement. The school board and administration have worked hard to make the case for the many needs and solicit community feedback and involvement. They deserve our sincere, immense gratitude and support for their personal sacrifices. Unfortunately, just as Herculean student effort does not guarantee competence in the classroom or victory on the field, district work on this capital facilities project does not mean objective trade-offs have been conveyed or that a compelling case has been made to support the proposal at the ballot box. We have a lot of work to do to have the necessary information to make an informed decision on a bond and a new high school.
In addition to providing a vision of how the proposed facility will integrate with solutions to the above issues, other questions remain unanswered or misunderstood. Some of these are:
Do teachers support this? They are in the trenches and offer a valuable perspective of what is needed to improve our schools. It would be nice to know what a confidential exhaustive poll would show. There may well be a significant minority, or even a majority, uncomfortable opposing this in public, who are concerned with personal cost, a lack of need or other significant aspects of the proposal.
This year’s budget solutions are temporary fixes. Recent enrollment is lower than forecast, and projections suggest that we may be headed for a 20 percent decrease in the next few years. This would result in a roughly 20 percent decrease in state funding, or a $1.5 million decrease in revenue, which translates into a 10 percent decrease in our overall budget. This year, the budget increased around 11 percent with a decrease in teachers. Salaries, our biggest expense, will continue to increase, and we should expect no state help given the impending budget shortfall.
People discount the enrollment trends because the sample size is too small to be statistically valid. If there is smoke coming from the school windows, I hope we will not wait for a large statistically valid sample before calling 911. We shouldn’t wait on this issue either. A rough but realistic budget forecast for the next two or three years would not be expensive or time-consuming and would help shed light on this challenge. This could allow for proactive solutions instead of stop-gap reactive Band-Aids.
The district’s recent telephone survey found that 35 percent of those polled are most concerned about school finances. District architects predict that the current capital facilities proposal will increase operating costs. This is contrary to one of the initial objectives of the capital facilities project and to the concerns of those polled.
For a $70 million project, we will pay an additional $45 to $70 million in interest. That is possibly a dollar in interest for every dollar of development. Large districts such as Seattle avoid this by financing with levies or short-term bonds. In our state, small districts must spend 60 to 100 percent more on facilities development than large districts. We should not be penalized this way. Have we seriously pursued better alternatives? I am not saying there is an obvious or easy alternative, but we must confront and solve these tough problems. Imagine what an extra $70 million could do!
More emphasis needs to be put on keeping costs down. Board members have expressed concern for total cost. However, they have not pushed hard for lower-cost solutions that do not sacrifice function. We need to demand value and question the actual need of some elements of the proposal. For example, what is the educational benefit of moving the district offices from the current paid-for location? Do we really need to redo our high school parking lot? Would it be more cost-effective to put a few more tables in the lunch room and have two lunch periods than to build a larger lunch room and reconfigure the existing lunch room? Funds saved on these projects might pay for some of the stand- alone projects.
The proposed bond has been falsely presented as minimally increasing taxes. This is now inaccurate in two respects. First, in response to public input encouraging a comprehensive, efficient solution, the size and cost of the proposal has increased. This is reasonable and defendable, but the result is still higher taxes. Second, the bond financing options assume tax collections will increase 3 percent annually. Regardless of property assessments, tax rates will be adjusted to ensure that aggregate tax collections increase 3 percent each year. While each tax parcel is unique, the best estimate is that each tax bill will increase 3 percent annually, totaling a 75 percent increase over the life of the bond. Most concerning is that the board has chosen to allow this misconception to prevail rather than clarify the issue.
Taxpayers obviously are interested in this. But it is also of concern for anyone who cares about kids and the community. As taxes increase, it becomes more difficult for teachers and families with children to live here. Many teachers, parents and board members agree that schools benefit from teachers living on the Island. Higher cost of living for families reduces enrollment, which increases the need to fill schools with off-Island students who do not help pay for the facilities improvements.
Higher taxes make it more difficult to pass future levies. Our schools routinely rely on local levies for operations and for capital projects in technology.
Many support this proposal, saying that our kids deserve it. They do. But not at the expense of other things they deserve. We need to find solutions that do not compromise other objectives. We need to support this project, but it needs to be improved to be worthy of support.
— Steve Ellison, a father of three young children, attends most of the Vashon Island School District board meetings.