It’s the right time to invest in schools

As a concerned property owner, parent and someone who has studied property taxes on this Island, I’d like to share my perspective regarding the school board’s proposal to renovate Vashon High School and make important improvements to McMurray Middle School and Chautauqua Elementary. These renovations are necessary, and the scale and cost of this project is reasonable.

  • Wednesday, January 7, 2009 7:00am
  • Opinion

By SCOTT BENNER

For The Beachcomber

As a concerned property owner, parent and someone who has studied property taxes on this Island, I’d like to share my perspective regarding the school board’s proposal to renovate Vashon High School and make important improvements to McMurray Middle School and Chautauqua Elementary. These renovations are necessary, and the scale and cost of this project is reasonable.

Building and maintaining schools is costly, but it’s our responsibility as citizens to bear the cost of public education.

Like all school districts in this state, Vashon receives insufficient funding to pay for both operating costs and the building and replacement of facilities. Instead, facilities must be funded through bonds and repaid by property owners over time. Given that we have three schools in this district, we must expect that there will always be a bond in effect.

With that in mind, I would like to make the following points: The plan is lean and meets fundamental needs. The cost is reasonable given Vashon’s tax base. Now is the time to do it while construction costs are down.

The scale of the renovations is proportionate to the need.

There are many varying perspectives on what we truly need. Many have written about the unhealthy, cramped and deteriorating condition of the high school’s classrooms. Others believe that athletic improvements are paramount.

The renovation plan offers a compromise, repurposing most of our existing facilities, including the much-reviled Building A, while omitting certain extras. Nobody gets everything they want, but the plan still meets our needs for many, many years to come. In particular, I note for those who might object to the athletic improvements that they represent less than 10 percent of the anticipated cost.

Voters who are unaware of conditions should see for themselves by touring the high school.

Check www.vashonsd.org and www.vashonforschools.org for tour details or a virtual tour.

And still, I’ve heard some people comment that our children and teachers could make do with less. Certainly they could.

No matter the standard of accommodation proposed, one can always imagine something less. As school board chair Bob Hennessey facetiously suggested, we could educate our kids in teepees in Ober Park and have the track team practice in the Thriftway parking lot.

But frugality, in excess, is a form of vanity. We should not withhold comfortable and safe classrooms and playing fields from our kids and teachers as an exercise in financial piety. Neither we nor our children would be more virtuous.

The cost is reasonable.

Instead, the standard of the proposed facility should reflect the resources of the community, and I believe this proposal does that. Right now, Vashon’s school tax rate is very low compared to other Seattle-Tacoma communities. Even after the passage of the bond, we would rank no higher than the middle of the pack.

The average tax rate for bonds and capital levies on Vashon in support of schools since 1996 has been $1.58 per $1,000 of assessed value. If the new bond is passed, the rate will be $1.91 per $1,000, only 33 cents higher. For a $535,000 median priced home on Vashon (per 2008 sales data), that is an increase of $177 per year or only $14.71 per month.

School taxation is a small fraction of overall property taxation, and one can see this bond would only modestly increase the rate property owners are already accustomed to. Analysis can be difficult due to the changing tax rate the last few years. For example, a comparison only with the tax rate in 2008 is unfair since taxpayers received a substantial rebate last year from the settlement of the Chautauqua lawsuit.

The timing is right.

We should not postpone the bond until the economy improves. We all understand that the recession has taken its toll on artisans, business owners and the value of retirees’ investment portfolios, not to mention those who have lost their jobs. However, this recession will pass within a year, while the term of the bond and the useful life of the proposed renovations will last many, many years. Consequently, longer-term considerations must prevail.

As noted above, the effect of the bond on taxpayers is slight in comparison to the larger economic forces over which we have no control. However, we can make the best of our poor economy by undertaking this project now.

The recession has lowered construction costs substantially and will save us several millions of dollars versus postponing these renovations for even a couple of years. We also have the possibility of bringing work to local construction laborers and artisans through the proposed renovations.

As voters consider the proposed bond, I’d ask them to reflect on what we ask of our children: to do your personal best, to seek achievement commensurate with your gifts and spirit. Let us be willing to ask the same of ourselves.

­— Scott Benner is a financial adviser and lawyer and lives on Vashon Island with his wife Kimberly and children Brooks and Audrey.


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