T ahoma’s overcrowded schools have made regional news since the construction bond failed last spring, and the school board is now trying to decide what to do, which may not include rerunning the same bond — or any bond — in the near future.
“They are beginning to look at options and seeing how feasible some of these options may be,” says school district spokesman Kevin Patterson.
The school board has scheduled two study sessions in a row — on March 5 and 6 — to meet with architects from the DLR Group who were charged with coming up with creative ideas for using existing space or offering new building concepts that could reduce the cost of a future school bond.
We have pushed these facilities past their maximum
The $125 million bond needed 60 percent approval but earned only 53 percent in April 2011. About 49 percent of registered voters in the district mailed in ballots.
After the bond failed, the district formed the Ad Hoc Citizen Committee on Student Housing, 19 community volunteers who met twice a month for five months. Their 21-page report, released in November, contains numerous ideas for dealing with the school crowding problem. You can read it here: Ad hoc committee report final.
On Dec. 15, KING 5 News in Seattle ran a follow-up story on overcrowding in Tahoma schools as a response to the committee’s report. You can view it HERE.
Most of the committee’s short-term suggestions involve alternatives to rerunning the bond. For instance, the committee suggests eliminating music, computer lab and all-day kindergarten at the elementary schools to increase classroom space. Another recommendation is to move some students from the junior high — currently the most overcrowded school — to the middle schools or the high school. It also suggests a multi-track, year-round school schedule.
Some other short-term solutions have already been discussed by the board and likely will be rejected because costs or logistics make them impractical, Patterson says. These include leasing commercial space to house students, turning the Central Services Center (across from Rock Creek Elementary) into kindergarten space, and leasing one of the schools that the Kent School District is considering closing.
Options such as these can cost a couple million dollars to implement, and Tahoma does not have reserves of that size, Patterson says.
Even if the board should decide to rerun the bond — or a modified version of it — the earliest a bond could make it onto a ballot would be this November, Patterson says.
Some blamed the economy for the failure of the April 2011 bond, but Patterson adds that even in an improving economy, the school board knows bonds can be a tough sell in Maple Valley, where voters have rejected three construction bond measures in the past decade.
For one thing, bonds tend to cost individual property owners more here than they would in other communities because of Maple Valley’s lack of commercial and business development.
“We’re way out of balance as far as that’s concerned, and that’s been a challenge forever in terms of passing bonds and levies,” he says.
The new Fred Meyer complex — which will be re-assessed when construction is complete — is expected to help only slightly.
“It’s not going to dramatically alter the tax rates … maybe a few cents per thousand. It’s not going to be like dollars per thousand,” Patterson says. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
The 2011 bond measure was estimated to cost homeowners $1.41 per $1,000 of assessed valuation — or about $33 a month for a home valued at $300,000.
Another challenge in Maple Valley is that the many rural property owners in the Tahoma district can face a higher tax burden due to their acreage than do people who live in the densely populated neighborhoods inside Maple Valley. He notes that the bond was approved by a higher percentage of voters inside the city limits: Nearly every city precinct was close to or above 60 percent.
“It’s going to be difficult to get this passed, and it always will be,” Patterson says. “There are some who will never be persuaded because they don’t think this is the right way to fund schools or the right way that their tax dollars should be spent.”
Therefore, though the board sees a bond as the best way to meet the needs of the district, it is studying alternatives.
Rather than a bond appearing on the November ballot, the board may choose to run a capital improvements levy, Patterson says, which requires only 50 percent approval and would cost voters less in the short term.
A levy would still leave kids in schools filled beyond capacity, but the roughly $10 million it could raise would provide the bare minimum needed for critical “warm, safe, and dry” repairs, mainly plumbing, HVAC, roof and flooring repairs or replacements in a number of the district schools, according to the committee’s report.
“We have no other way to deal with those,” Patterson says. “If we can do some of the fix-ups with the capital levy, that will get us by.”
At that point, the district could wait to run a bond until 2015, when construction bonds from the 1990s will be paid off. This means a new bond would have little to no impact on resident tax bills.
Under that schedule, however, crowding could not be relieved until at least five years from now, and the latest demographic estimates show that this timing would be right on the edge of projected maximum enrollment, when the district must choose to stagger school schedules or other “worst-case” actions, Patterson says.
The committee report notes that “Tahoma schools are already crowded beyond their design capacity, and ‘maximum enrollment’ is the absolute limit for a school.” Patterson agrees, saying schools such as the junior high are so crowded that they cannot legally add any more portable classrooms. Tahoma schools offer the lowest square footage per student in King County, the report shows.
Patterson bristles when community members call the possibility of multi-track, year-round schedules a “scare tactic.”
“We’re not very scary,” he says. “If anything, we do too much to try to get by with what we have and make things stretch as far as they can stretch before we go to the community and ask for help.
“That’s the situation we are in now. We have pushed these facilities past their maximum, and now we have to do something about it. What that will be is up to the school board and the community.”
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