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Issue of trust swirls around Prop. 1 vote

Traffic on Maxwelton Road. Young girls mixing with older boys. Potential permitting problems. Septic system capacity. The price tag.

All important issues, to be sure, as voters consider the South Whidbey School District’s $25 million bond issue that will appear on next week’s ballot.

But those issues, and others, seem to be the flotsam riding a much bigger current: trust.

For the first time in recent memory, a South End school measure is facing organized opposition, and district officials are talking openly of the proposal’s potential for failure at the ballot box.

Proposition 1 would allow the school district to sell 20-year bonds that would pay for $10 million worth of repairs in South End schools, with the remaining $15 million to fund upgrades at South Whidbey High School to accommodate the move by 2012 of Langley Middle School to the high school campus on Maxwelton Road.

The school board decided last year to close the iconic Langley Middle School campus as part of a massive restructuring plan needed to bridge a $1.8 million budget gap created by declining enrollment.

Mothballing LMS and moving middle school students to the high school campus, however, angered many in the community who continue to question the wisdom of closing the expansive facility.

Critics speak out

Damian Greene, one of the members of the group opposed to Prop. 1, said too many questions remain unanswered about the consolidation effort. Critics of the bond measure wonder whether the bond sale will provide enough money to fund the upgrade at the high school, and question many details of the bond proposal.

Greene said the district does not have an approved plan for the expansion of the high school, and said the ballot language itself is too vague to guarantee that the district will do the work it has promised.

“It’s a blank check for $25 million,” he said.

Student programs and education will suffer because of the move, Greene said, adding that there are specific problems with the components of the bond measure.

“They talk about wanting to spend $1.4 million for painting and nearly $700,000 to resurface the track [at the high school],” he said. “These are maintenance issues, or levy issues. We will be paying interest on these repairs long after the life span has expired on resurfacing the track.”

“It’s kind of like the Kingdome deal. We’re still paying for the Kingdome and it’s gone,” he said.

School district officials have spent months detailing why the bond proposal has been put together the way it has, however.

District Superintendent Fred McCarthy said some claims made my opponents to the bond are misguided, such as the belief that the middle school could be renovated and stay in service for the amount the school district is seeking from voters.

“I don’t believe that’s a legitimate criticism, because the need for improvements are throughout the district, not just the middle school,” McCarthy said.

“Using the majority of the money to fix up the middle school building doesn’t make sense to me,” he said, adding that upgrades are needed in the schools that will stay open and used as primary facilities.

Move saves money

Closing the middle school will save $471,000 for the cash-strapped district, and officials have repeatedly said it’s not a wise use of taxpayer money to renovate buildings that will sit half-empty as the number of students in district classrooms continues to plummet.

It makes more sense to move younger students to the high school, rather than fixing LMS, McCarthy said.

“It’s a seismically sound building. It’s newer. It has an appropriate infrastructure to support technology in the future,” he said. “And overall, while Langley Middle School has some spaces that are fairly good, the high school has many more spaces in total that are much better suited for secondary education for the long run.”

Critics have complained about shifting cost estimates for the consolidation effort and repair work. But McCarthy said the proposed work has been fully analyzed by a team of architects, and that the district has used conservative estimates in the past, and such frugal expectations have worked well.

He listed recent projects — the reroofing of the elementary school and the seismic retrofit of the covered play area at the primary school — that have been completed for a fraction of the estimated cost.

The roofing at the elementary school was estimated to cost $750,000 but was completed for $180,000. The work on the covered play area was estimated at $150,000, but cost $20,000.

“That’s not because the estimates were wrong, it’s because we were able to get local people to do the work in a very tight climate here, where you can get a lot more construction and repair work for the same amount of money,” McCarthy said.

“That’s why I have no doubt that the $25 million is sufficient to do the projects described,” he said.

Impact to taxes

If the bond measure is approved next week, property owners will actually see a reduction in the amount of taxes they pay for local schools.

The bond measure will cost property owners 47 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, approximately $164.50 for a home valued at $350,000.

The current bond measure is expiring, however, and property owners currently pay 67 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Officials have said the consolidation effort will move forward even if the bond measure fails, but note that that will prevent the district from making improvements that would preserve the middle school program, but in a different location.

Much of the bond measure would pay for changes at the high school, which total $10.6 million in renovations that include four new classrooms and a gym for middle schoolers.

Site improvements at SWHS, including an artificial turf at Waterman Field so it could be used more regularly by all students at the campus, total $3.6 million.

Facility repairs are estimated to cost $10.5 million, and include work at the high school, primary building and Bayview School.

What’s next

Prop. 1 needs 60 percent of the vote to pass. The next chance to rerun the bond measure, or another version, is Feb. 8.

“I know the board is doing some thinking, because we’re not sure how the election is going to turn out,” McCarthy said. “There’s enough controversy that we’re not convinced that this is going to be a successful election.”

“If it comes close to that 60 percent, I see the board going in one direction. If it’s a long way from 60 percent, I see them going in another direction,” he said.

“The board and the administration will listen to the public in terms of the results of the vote, and their actions will take into consideration what the will of the public is,” McCarthy said.

Greene said he, too, would take his cue from voters.

“I hope whatever outcome we come to as a community, I hope we can move forward with it and have it no longer dividing the community,” he said.

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