Both sides of Peninsula School District’s Proposition 1 debated the capital levy issue last Thursday during the weekly public affairs forum at Cottesmore of Life Care in Gig Harbor.
Voters will determine whether or not to approve a four-year, $50 million capital levy on the Nov. 5 ballot. Unlike a bond measure, which needs a 60 percent supermajority to pass, levies need 50 percent plus one vote.
Harlan Gallinger, a school board member and volunteer, debated with Jerry Gibbs, the co-leader of the opposition.
Gallinger made a case for the levy, saying the school district’s needs are clear. If it passes, the PSD intends to build a new school near the YMCA on Harbor Hill Drive and rebuild Artondale Elementary School. It also plans to spend $5 on upgrades to athletic fields and on safety and security systems district-wide.
“You will hear and see the misleading statements about a 55 percent tax increase,” Gallinger said. “I’d hope the voters care about the facts. There’s only been one capital measure passed in the last 23 years. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see what our schools look like.”
Gallinger referred to signs around Gig Harbor that say the levy would be a 55 percent tax increase. While the number is legitimate, it only applies to the portion property tax that goes to the school district, not the overall tax collection amount. The bump in overall property taxes paid would be about 10 to 12 percent.
Gibbs said his group, also led by Ken Manning, does support schools, but the economy is in a weak state, and the timing is bad for a tax increase.
“We feel it’s a rushed plan with unintended consequences for the community, and, yes, we have to talk about the size of the tax increase,” Gibbs said. “Our economy, food, fuel, health care, fees, tolls, taxes are all going up. Gov. (Jay) Inslee wants to increase the gas tax. Part-time jobs are now the standard. The middle class is shrinking.”
Gibbs said the school board is ignoring the large population of retired people in Gig Harbor and on the Key Peninsula, many of whom are struggling financially on a fixed income and can’t afford a tax increase.
Gallinger countered by saying everyone in the community has a responsibility to help.
“We have a collective responsibility for each other,” Gallinger said. “There are 9,000-plus students that attend our schools. It’s just like we share a responsibility for retired people on fixed incomes. Social Security and Medicare taxes went up, but I don’t lobby against that because that’s part of what it means to be in a community. Public education is one of those common interests that the community hasn’t invested much in in the last 25 years.”
The last capital measure voters passed for the school district was in 2003. The funds went to rebuild Purdy Elementary, Harbor Ridge Middle School and half of Peninsula High School, Gallinger said.
Due to recent growth in Gig Harbor North, Purdy Elementary is over capacity. A new $22.5 million school in Gig Harbor North would help to alleviate that, Gallinger said, and Artondale Elementary would be rebuilt for the same price tag. Artondale currently has a leaky roof and a sinking foundation.
One potential solution if the levy doesn’t pass is to redraw school district lines and redistribute students. Yet Gallinger said that would only be a short-term answer.
“Let’s say we move the lines and anger everyone,” he said. “That’ll buy us about 18 months, then every school will be overcrowded. Then we’ll still be in the same position.”
Gibbs also said the money from the last maintenance and operations levy should be used to fix some of the issues at Artondale, instead of tearing it down and building another school.
Gallinger countered and said the majority of the funds from the M&O levy goes to teachers and classrooms programs, so there isn’t a lot left over for school repairs.
“That goes to teacher salaries, busing, maintenance, supplies and equipment that our state doesn’t fully fund,” Gallinger said. “That money doesn’t go toward capital costs.
“Our students score 10 points higher on state tests, their SATs are 100 points higher. Our teachers are paid significantly less. They took a 1.9 percent pay decrease, and our administration took a 5 percent decrease. Those are things the district is doing. We have a lot to show for it with our students.”
Gibbs said the district has been misleading about the intention of the M&O levies.
“They told us that it’s imperative to maintain quality schools in our district,” Gibbs said. “You go over to Artondale, there are cracks in the wall and a sinking foundation, but they’ve done nothing to fix it.”
If Proposition 1 is approved, the school district would collect $12.5 million each year for the next four years.
Voters rejected a $78 million capital bond in 2011 with similar projects on the list. It received more than 50 percent of the vote but failed to reach the 60 percent requirement.
Gibbs said the school board is running the proposition as a capital levy to bypass that requirement.
“They can’t get the 60 percent,” Gibbs said. “If levies were such a good idea, why has the district only used bonds throughout the years? That’s the way business is done. Interest rates on bonds are cheapest they have been in history. It should be a bond measure. This is being run as a levy for one reason: They haven’t built the community support they need to run it is a bond.”
Gallinger said the board is running it as a levy to save taxpayers money.
“One of the main reasons is that it’s pay-as-you-go; it fits nicely with two elementary schools,” Gallinger said. “We’re going to collect $12.5 (million) per year, so it fits nicely with the building cycle. It will save taxpayers $24 million. Over the long run, it’ll save taxpayers almost half of what they would pay over 20 years. It brings it to a rate very consistent with what other districts are doing. It’ll save a substantial amount of money.”