The Peninsula School District will ask voters Nov. 5 to approve Proposition 1, a four-year, $50 million capital levy to address critical needs. It deserves support, because the district must address growing overcrowding issues at four elementary schools, particularly at Purdy, which is built for about 600 students but has almost 750 enrolled this fall, and it also needs to replace Artondale Elementary, which was built in 1959.
Sound opposition, concerned about tax hikes and unintended consequences, has questioned PSD officials every step of the way, but both sides agree on two things: There are problems today, and if they’re not addressed, they will be worse in the future.
The question is, how do you fix them?
Proposition 1 is a pay-as-you-go tax collection of $12.5 million per year, and it would expire after four years. The total collection would pay for the $22.5 million construction of a new elementary school near the YMCA in Gig Harbor North on land the school district already owns, and it would rebuild Artondale for the same price. The remaining $5 million would pay for technology upgrades, safety and security measures at district-wide facilities, as well as the replacement of turf fields at Gig Harbor and Peninsula high schools.
Levies and bonds are different. The former needs a simple majority of 50 percent to pass, while the latter requires a 60 percent supermajority. In addition, levy money is collected with tax payments twice per year, while bonds come with a lump sum up front with repayment and interest over as many as 20 or 30 years.
Bonds typically are used for large capital projects, but the PSD Board of Directors chose to move forward with a levy for two main reasons. First, they wanted a smaller amount than the proposed $78 million capital bond that voters rejected in 2011, and they wanted to focus only on issues of the highest priority. They also looked for ways to minimize impact. Interest payments on long-term bonds would cost taxpayers as much as an additional $24 million — 50 percent more than what the district needs right now.
If it’s approved, voters would pay an extra $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed property value to bring their total contribution to the school district to about $4.15 per $1,000. The increase would be about 50 percent on the portion taxpayers already pay toward the PSD, although it would still be the lowest out of the 15 Pierce County school districts when it’s compared to other communities’ contributions.
It’s never easy to vote a tax on yourself, and the “no” campaign has legitimate concerns. Gig Harbor is increasingly becoming a retirement community, and there are many people on fixed incomes who are trying to deal with rising prices wherever they turn. When will taxpayer fatigue hit the ceiling? If voters approve the capital levy, will they be able to renew the maintenance and operations levy when it expires in a few years? What has the school district done to control its expenses?
The PSD has been frugal with its operating budgets during the past few years. It’s asked administrators to take a 5 percent pay reduction and renewed its deal with the teachers’ union to include a very modest pay increase of about 0.5 percent per year.
It’s also looked at the suggested alternative of drawing new district lines to move students to different schools. And while it may be a short-term fix — the school board says it might work for about 18 months — the expected growth in Gig Harbor North would put them in the same position of need quickly. With four elementary schools already at more than 100 percent capacity, the question becomes, “We’re going to redistrict them to where?”
The answer: A new school, which has been in the PSD’s long-range plans for about a decade — it’s not a rushed plan, as the “no” side claims — and now is the time.
The funding mechanism — a capital levy vs. a capital bond — has been used by school districts small and large, particularly when they ask for a smaller amount of money, so they can avoid costly interest payments.
This is a reasonable request for Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula voters, and it’s an opportunity to adjust to our growing communities.