The Peninsula School District Board of Directors voted unanimously last week to include a $50 million capital projects levy on the November ballot.
The board held a special 7 a.m. meeting at the district office Wednesday morning to hear public testimony and vote to move forward.
If voters approve it with a simple majority, the levy would include a new elementary school in Gig Harbor North and a rebuild of Artondale Elementary School. The new schools would cost $22.5 million each. The additional $5 million would be used for various improvements in the district.
The estimated tax increase would be $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed property value, and it would be added to the current rate, about a 60 percent increase that would bring the total tax collection to about $3.75 per $1,000.
School board member Harlan Gallinger, who gave a PowerPoint presentation Wednesday, said the Gig Harbor North area needs another elementary school.
“This explosive growth in Gig Harbor North has really taken off,” he said. “It’s growing like crazy. Most of the growth is in the Purdy Elementary school district — it puts a lot of pressure on that school.”
Purdy Elementary is designed for about 500 students, but enrollment for the 2012-13 school year was 747. The district has attempted to counter the growth by moving out highly capable students and denying all out-of-district transfers, but enrollment is still substantially higher than intended.
Parents have complained about the overcrowding.
“If we look at all of the other schools, some of the different numbers in other schools are like 350 (students), we’re way up here at 700,” said Kelly Fisk, a parent of a Purdy student. “It is a safety concern, and there are also anxiety concerns. Parents aren’t encouraged to attend any of the assemblies. Parents are skipping them because it’s just too much.”
Artondale Elementary does not have overcrowding concerns, but it’s suffering from building deterioration and infrastructure issues. The school board has identified Artondale as the facility with the most pressing need for replacement.
Parent Lisa Anderson said the time for waiting is over.
“I’ve seen Artondale and the state of its decay for a long time,” she said. “When we say, ‘Let’s wait,’ well, my kids don’t have the chance to wait. The floor tiling is coming up. It’s a hazard. It’s a frightening place to send my children. The parking lot is horrendous. We’re losing families to private schools.”
Ernie Elton, director of facilities for the Peninsula School District, said Artondale needs to be replaced sooner rather than later. Whenever the district is planning to do a major capital project, the state requires the district to perform a study and survey, which results in scores for the facilities. Artondale scored a 45 out of 100.
“The roofing is shot,” Elton said. “The building is so low-slung, it allows itself to be vandalized all the time. There’s sinking and cracking problems. There are no security systems, and we’d like to upgrade that and put cameras in. The HVAC system has been in there for 30-plus years; the normal life expectancy is 15 to 20 years. The building has run its course of life.”
Elton detailed several other problems with the building, noting problematic plumbing, old windows, electrical issues, ceiling leaks, a small covered play area, interior wall issues and a small parking lot that makes maneuvering difficult.
The board considered putting the levy on the ballot next February, which would give school officials more time to put together a thorough campaign, but they decided the levy needed to go forward this fall.
“We heard loudly from parents that we need to do something now,” Gallinger said. “If we do November, it allows us to start construction one year earlier. Growth in Gig Harbor North is accelerating faster than forecasts. We need to be ready for that. It will save taxpayers $100,000 for costs associated with a special election — this would buy about 200 iPads for our students.”
The district is pushing the levy after voters rejected a $78 million bond measure in 2011. Bonds require a supermajority vote of 60 percent to pass, while levies only require a simple majority.
Some community members are concerned that the board is switching to a levy simply because it will be easier to pass.
“I fear that you’re running it as a levy to get past the supermajority requirement of a bond,” said Jerry Gibbs of Gig Harbor. “Instead of taking on the hard issues that would bring in that additional 5 percent, you decided to run this as a levy because it only requires 50 percent.”
Multiple people were concerned about the timing of the levy, saying spending increases should not come in the midst of a weak economy.
“I think we all recognize that we’re going to need new schools, and there’s a need for improvement,” community member Greg Baltmiskis said. “I think the timing is bad. We may not qualify under technical recession, but we’re still in one. There’s close to 200 foreclosed homes for sale in Gig Harbor. Property values have gone down, and property taxes have remained the same.”
Gallinger said falling property values should encourage investment in schools and infrastructure, not deter it.
“Investing in your students is investing in your property values,” Gallinger said. “We should be telling to people to live in Gig Harbor. When the word starts getting out that we’re not taking care of our schools, that’s sending a message to people that we don’t care about our community.
“I agree that the economy is rough,” he said. “I can’t assure you in 10 years it will be different, but I can promise you in 10 years from now, our kids will be in worse shape if we do nothing.”
Board member Rick Jones voiced his support for the levy.
“These are definite needs,” Jones said. “It has to be about what’s best for the kids. We start with them. Gig Harbor North — absolutely. Purdy is crazy up there. Artondale — that need is huge. That building is in horrible shape. My kids are at Gig Harbor High School, but it affects me as a citizen. We need it for the community. It helps our kids, our community and property values.”Reporter Jon Manley can be reached at 253-358-4151 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_jon.