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Campaign kicks off for $25 million bond to improve schools

LANGLEY — There’s no going back.

That was the message from District Superintendent Fred McCarthy as he kicked off the campaign this week for a $25 million bond measure to help pay for the move of Langley Middle School to the high school campus.

At this week’s Langley Chamber of Commerce meeting, McCarthy told the crowd that those who think the rejection of the bond in November will keep the historic school in Langley open are wrong.

If the bond measure fails, McCarthy said he expects the school board will go to voters again in February, but likely with a bond for half the size of the proposed measure, and one that would only pay for the repairs needed in schools throughout the district.

Voters will be asked on Election Day to approve the 20-year bond measure, billed by district officials as a “replacement” for one approved in 1990 that’s set to expire this year. The new bonds would devote $10 million to repairs in South End schools, with the remaining $15 million to fund upgrades at South Whidbey High School to accommodate the move to the Maxwelton campus of the middle school by 2012.

The bond measure could cost property owners

47 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. That’s about $164.50 for a home valued at $350,000.

McCarthy noted that property owners would see a drop in their tax bills if the measure is approved, considering that the current bond measure is 67 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

“Your taxes on a $350,000 house ... should go down by about $70,” he said.

But given the current climate — one McCarthy characterized as “throw the bums out” and “no new taxes” — there are worries that the $25 million bond won’t pass come November.

“I think that given what’s happened with Proposition 1 and the political climate in the country, we’ve got a long way to Tipperary with this bond issue,” McCarthy said.

School board members have already talked about a “Plan B,” he said, in light of the failure of the county’s Prop. 1 at the ballot box in the last election.

That may mean just a bond to pay for repairs.

And if that fails, the district will look at options such as shifting the sixth grade to the elementary school and doing it a year ahead of time.

“People who think that, ‘If I vote no, then the middle school will stay open’ — that’s not going to happen,” he said.

Hammered by budget cuts prompted by a drop in student enrollment, the school board voted to close LMS last year.

McCarthy said the district has lost 400 students over the span of four years — enough to fill a school. In the past two years, approximately $3.4 million has been cut out of the district’s $16 million budget.

Forty employees have been laid off, and that includes every one with less than 14 years of service in the district, McCarthy said.

Though districts elsewhere have retrofitted historic structures, the costs for saving LMS are too high.

“I liken it to my ’52 International pickup,” McCarthy said. “If you stand back 25 feet, it really looks good. But I’m not getting in it and driving it to California. It ain’t going to make it for the long run.”

McCarthy said the president of Skagit Valley College, and other officials from the college, will visit LMS next week to see if it might work as a satellite campus.

“I think those people who are still saying we ought to keep the middle school and hold on to it, might see that as an acceptable use and be willing to say ... if I saw it continuing as a college, that would be something I could go for.”

Some have questioned the estimated cost of revamping LMS, and those concerns were echoed at this week’s chamber meeting.

McCarthy said, structurally, LMS was “built like Fort Knox,” but he was worried about the building’s brick facade in an earthquake.

“I don’t believe the district has the resources to restore it. And if you had to choose between restoring the high school or restoring the middle school for the long run, the other one makes a lot more sense. It’s wired for current technology; it has the space available,” he said.

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