Opinion

Tacoma school bond a lesson | Kris Hill

Sometimes I get a day or two behind on my Twitter feed. For a while I was at least a week behind. One of the reasons I use Twitter is so I can keep up with what’s going on in the world.

I forgot about the school bond measures on the ballot in Seattle and Tacoma Feb. 12, so, the next afternoon I was catching up with the results. I was particularly interested in what would happen with the proposed $500 million construction bond measure Tacoma Public Schools put on the ballot.

Personally, when I first saw that number, I had no doubt in my mind it would fail. Perhaps having lived in Maple Valley for nearly nine years has made me skeptical that a construction bond could pass. It’s been a long time since the Tahoma School District has received enough support from voters for a bond measure to build anything — more than a decade.

So, imagine my surprise as I scrolled through my Twitter feed the afternoon of Feb. 13 to see a tweet that it appeared that Tacoma Public Schools construction bond measure would pass so long as it met the minimum voter turnout threshold, according to an article in the Tacoma News Tribune.

I figured that Seattle Public Schools $552 million operations levy would pass, which it did with 74 percent of the vote, as would the $695 million capital levy. According to a Seattle Times article, the levies combined — $1.25 billion — for the largest public school request from taxpayers in the city’s history.

Because of the city’s size I figured it would pass. And because of efforts to make reforms in the district, I figured the levies for Seattle Public Schools would pass. It appears that the issues the district had during the past four years or so have been forgiven by voters.

Tacoma’s schools have had issues, scandals — whatever you wish to call them — in its recent past, as well. But it’s a different town than Seattle, which is the 12th largest metropolitan economy in the country. Tacoma is smaller, though in terms of demographics, it’s fairly similar as far as ethnic breakdown. Seattle, however, has a significantly higher median income for individuals and families. It has more large companies. It just has a larger tax base to draw from.

But, Tacoma stepped up. According to the News Tribune, it had been 12 years since the last time Tacoma Public Schools passed a construction bond measure.

Up here in Maple Valley, Tahoma officials can relate.

As I read over the article in the TNT, the reporter quoted sources who said the campaign for the bond garnered broad, widespread support from all corners of the community, even those whose children were no longer in the school system.

Tacoma’s bond measure would cover the costs of constructing or renovating 14 schools as well as other projects through the district.

This was all quite striking to me, too, in light of the conversation I had Feb. 8 with Tahoma Superintendent Mike Maryanski. TSD is overcrowded and needs to find a way to deal with that overcrowding which came with an explosion in Maple Valley’s population during the past decade. It was growth no one projected.

For close to a year, Maryanski was in talks with King County officials discussing a proposal to build a new Tahoma High School in an area known somewhat affectionately as the donut hole, a 156-acre property owned by the county. The donut hol is located on the corner of Southeast 228th Street and Kent-Kangley Road, in the heart of Maple Valley, and entirely surrounded by the city.

Initial efforts to do a land swap — the district’s 30 or so acres outside the city limits next to Tahoma Junior High for 35 acres of land in the donut hole — didn’t pan out.

Secondary efforts to purchase land inside the donut hole also didn’t pan out as both the county and the district mutually agreed to walk away when officials realized there was too great of a difference between the asking price and what the buyer was willing to pay.

Still, that leaves Tahoma with a handful of options. The vision of building a brand new Tahoma High School from scratch with capacity for more than 2,000 students is the direction the district will likely move in. Other options, if Tahoma cannot get a construction bond measure approved, would include changing the way students attend school. Rather than the traditional school day now, students may end up on varied schedules, or the district could go with other alternatives to create capacity if it can’t do so by building new classrooms.

Maryanski said in order to build a new high school, a construction bond measure would need to be passed, and staff believe that would need to go to the voters in November.

A 60 percent approval, or supermajority, is required to pass such a measure. Though a dollar amount has not yet been settled on, a new high school could cost anywhere between $90 and $110 million. Look at what voters in the Auburn School District passed in the fall election: a $110 million bond measure to completely overhaul Auburn High, which is more than six decades old, according to an article by Robert Whale, staff writer for our sister publication, the Auburn Reporter. It took three tries for the measure to pass — it failed in 2009 and again in a February 2012 special election.

In 2011 when Tahoma last ran its bond, it was one of a dozen similar measures put to voters across the state. And, it was one of a dozen measures which failed. There was no appetite at that time here or anywhere else in Washington state to approve additional spending for schools.

If Seattle, Tacoma and Auburn are any indication, perhaps now is more favorable, five years out from the start of the economic recession.

And perhaps Tahoma can learn from those successful campaigns in addition to the lessons learned from the unsuccessful 2011 bond measure.

But, I am kind of putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. First, district staff need to find a place to put a new high school. If all else fails, Tahoma has the blessing of the county to build it next to the junior high. I got the impression during my conversation with Maryanski that is not ideal and he explained that the search is on for a site within the urban growth boundary.

I hope, as a parent who lives in Maple Valley, that this will all finally come together this year. I hope some resolution will come about, not just for my daughter who is two years away from kindergarten, but for all the other children who endure crowded classrooms, schools, lunch times, portables, and much more.

My hope is that in the fall, the Covington-Maple Valley-Black Diamond Reporter Twitter account will post a link to a story like the one I saw today in my feed with a headline like this, “Voters approve Tahoma Schools construction bond measure.”

That’s the kind of surprise I’d like to come across when I finally get around to reading Twitter the day after the election in November.

 

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