After months of discussion and review, the Washington School Board voted unanimously Wednesday night to place a new bond issue on the April 2013 ballot.
The board will go back to voters seeking approval of a $49 million bond issue with a 25-cent tax increase — significantly less than the $65 million proposal and 46-cent tax hike that failed this past April.
School board members called the new plan a “good compromise” because it still addresses the most immediate needs without sacrificing the integrity of the long-range plan, while being mindful of the taxpayers’ burden.
The scaled-back proposal eliminates construction of a new elementary school, as well as some renovation projects at Washington High School.
The plan still calls for construction of a new middle school to serve sixth through eighth grades on the now vacant property the district owns on east Highway 100 and an Early Childhood Center on the Washington West Elementary campus.
Other projects include renovations to the high school locker rooms; an addition at Marthasville Elementary that would house two classrooms and a library/media center; HVAC improvements at Augusta Elementary; and wireless technology infrastructure districtwide.
A new element with this plan is utilizing the current middle school as a temporary elementary school until a new K-five school can be built. The district would consolidate Fifth Street and South Point schools to this site.
Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer said she’s pleased a decision has been made on how to proceed, but much work lays ahead in organizing another campaign and educating patrons.
“A lot of time and work has gone into developing this plan,” she said. “The school board and administrative team, along with advisory groups made up of staff and residents, have been reviewing options for a new bond issue for several months now.
“This is something we have taken very seriously and I feel like we have narrowed the projects to take care of the most pressing needs,” she added. “I wish we could do these projects without a tax increase, but we don’t have the means to do that.”
VanLeer said the new proposal achieves the district’s No. 1 goal — alleviating space issues at all elementary buildings with the removal of sixth grade at all eight schools.
The plan also provides comprehensive, efficient early intervention services with a new Early Childhood Center, she said, and eliminates the use of trailers currently in place on the Washington West campus.
The Parents As Teachers program, early childhood special education and all in-town Growing Place Preschool sites would be under one roof, she noted.
VanLeer said the district may be able to partially be reimbursed by the state over an eight-year period for the new center and there is the potential for partnerships with higher education.
The technology improvements proposed are key to the district delivering a 21st century curriculum at all schools, she said, and with new state standards and online assessments on the horizon will be a necessity.
VanLeer said she’s very excited about getting rid of all modular trailers at all sites under this plan and completing HVAC improvements.
The superintendent also pointed out that the district has retired some of its debt and participated in accelerated refunding/refinancing opportunities to help position itself financially.
Speak Out in Support
Before the school board voted Wednesday night, two patrons spoke out in favor of the plan and another against it.
Bob Hillermann, a former school board member, said any tax increase is too much because there are many people out of work and standing in line at food pantries. He also said he feels the district has “plenty of money” to do the projects without going to voters for a bond issue.
A mother with two children in the district spoke in favor of the latest proposal. Janie Chalen urged the board to take action and said she was disappointed when the proposal failed last April.
“I do think this is a good compromise and it takes into account the taxpayers by asking for less and going at a slower pace,” said Chalen, adding she’s appreciated how the superintendent and board have stayed positive and focused despite the defeat of the last proposal which has motivated her to stay involved.
Also speaking out in support was Brad Mitchell, who helped co-chair the citizens committee that promoted the last bond issue. He also has children attending schools in the district.
“If we’re not giving a quality education, we are short-selling” our kids, Mitchell said.
“I hope you take action on the new proposal. Numerous groups have met on this ... it addresses the needs, not everything, but a lot, and hopefully it will be more acceptable to the community,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”