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School board backs away from new bond
LANGLEY — South Whidbey School Board members are trying to sort out when — or maybe even if — the school district should ask voters a second time to approve a bond measure that would finance crucial upgrades in South End schools.
The school board held its first meeting Wednesday since voters rejected a $25 million bond package on Election Day that would have paid for improvements at South Whidbey High School to get ready for the move of the middle school there by 2012.
But given last week’s resounding “no” — voters rejected the bond proposal with 56 percent against the measure, and 43 percent for it (it needed 60 percent to pass) — board members are now struggling not only with the timing of a second run at the ballot, but also with what the bond should pay for, or if the district should even ask for a tax increase in light of the sour economy.
District officials had earlier considered rerunning a bond measure in February, but that option looks like it is no longer on the table.
Board member Jill Engstrom said February is too soon.
“I do not want to put it out there unless we are assured it will pass,” Engstrom said. “I don’t want to be questioning whether it will or not.”
But board member Fred O’Neal said the board has to figure out whether the district should run a bond measure at all.
O’Neal noted that the bond measure drew fire from many different points. Some were opposed because they wanted Langley Middle School to stay open.
Others wanted no tax increases of any kind. And some said the district should make due with the facilities it has, without building new classrooms and other facilities as part of the consolidation effort.
Still others suggested moving forward with combining the middle school and high school on Maxwelton Road, but also selling other school property to help the district’s battered budget.
Other voters were likely confused by the bond proposal, he added.
What’s more, the controversy over the consolidation effort may have scared away other potential “yes” voters.
Board chairwoman Leigh Anderson said the unsettled economy will continue to be bad in the year ahead, and that will continue to have an influence on voters.
“People are just like, ‘No,’” she said. “It’s a scary time for folks.”
Board member Rich Parker said the board needs to reexamine the items that make up the bond, and decide if the list of improvements should be cut back. He recalled that opponents of the bond had criticized the $1 million price tag for repainting classrooms and other district facilities, and added that the estimates themselves should get further review.
“We need to check all those numbers again,” Parker said.
Parker also said the district needs to drill down and find out exactly why so many voters opposed the measure. Roughly a third of voters who turn out typically vote against school measures, but without a better understanding of the “new” no voters, the district might be wasting its efforts if it goes back to the ballot box prematurely.
A voter survey would help, Parker said.
“We need the data,” he said.
But board member Steve Scoles said that last week’s election did just that.
“As far as the survey goes, I think we have it,” he said, adding that it would be a “tough sell” to get any kind of consolidation bond passed in the next year or two.
Even so, some said it might be different for a bond measure that would only cover needed repairs.
Though last week’s bond measure would have paid mostly for improvements due to the consolidation effort, such as a new gym and another four classrooms at the high school, it would have also devoted $10 million toward renovations in South End schools.
Erin Simms, a member of the campaign against the bond, said there was a concerted effort to get the measure rejected.
“We will pay for the schools. We just want it to make sense for us,” Simms said.
The board did not make any decisions on another bond proposal, and the board’s deliberations came after the close of an hour of public testimony that attracted nearly 90 people.
Some told the board that voters were given a muddied message on the bond proposal, and also noted a lack of trust that people have with the school board because it appeared that officials had not been listening to the public.
At times, it was testimony turned confessional as longtime school supporters stood up to say they were partly the reason why the bond measure fell to defeat.
“I voted no,” Kris Barker told the board, but added she would have voted yes for a bigger bond that made sense.
Closing the middle school did not seem to save enough money, Barker said, adding that other options should have been explored.
“The public has spoken,” she said. “Go back and rethink.”
Others urged the board to move forward on a measure that would at least cover the costs of needed improvements.
Crispin Roberts said if the board could keep the level of the next bond below $15 million, it would only cost the owner of a $350,000 home an extra $8 a month.
“That’s a pizza. That’s one pizza. A pack of cigarettes,” Crispin said.
Kris McRea, president of the South Whidbey Elementary PTA, urged the board not to tackle too much at once.
“Change hurts no matter what it is,” she said. “We’re all going to have to take baby steps.”
It was a message officials had heard earlier.
The school board met with about a dozen staff members at Langley Middle School earlier in the day, and the board was given a three-page statement from the school staff that said they were opposed to an early start to the consolidation effort. Staff members also said there was a lack of trust with the board, and that district officials had not listened to their concerns.
“We want the board to know that our entire staff is adamantly opposed to this timetable and feel it would be the single most outstanding mistake this board could make,” said Jay Freundlich, a middle and high school science teacher.
Freundlich said numerous things need to be resolved before the move, including work on planning and implementation issues such as staffing, the placement of classrooms, conflicting bell schedules and moving equipment and materials.
He also said the staff would like a transition committee formed that would have decision-making authority.
District officials said the school board will continue to talk about what’s next at its meeting on Nov. 22.