$20 million bond on the horizon for schools

With one eye on the economy and the other on the number of requests for public money, South Whidbey school officials are considering a bond issue next year for building maintenance and improvements.

“We want to be sensitive about not overburdening the taxpayers, but our buildings need a great deal of repair,” School District Superintendent Fred McCarthy said Thursday.

Under consideration: A new bond issue to replace the current $19 million bond measure that will be retired in 2010.

McCarthy said officials have been considering a ballot measure of about $20 million.

He said that if new bonds are approved by the school board, the time to put the measure on the ballot logically would be before the current bonds are retired. That would make it “in the near future,” he said, adding that it would be up to the board to decide.

He stressed that the idea is only in the talking stage, and that other potential revenue sources continue to be examined. McCarthy said the next step in the process could come later in the year, if the school board decides to take up the matter in public work sessions.

McCarthy said that because assessed valuations on property have increased since the current bonds were sold, the district might be able to offer a new bond issue with a lower rate.

He said taxpayers are paying 71 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation on the current bonds. A new bond issue, he said, could come in at 30 to 40 cents per $1,000, according to information he said he received from three bond companies.

He acknowledged, however, that it might not mean a lower overall tax bill because of the increases in property values.

McCarthy said the district needs the money to take care of structural and cosmetics problems in its deteriorating buildings, work that has been deferred for years.

“We want to be very good stewards of our money,” McCarthy said, “and we want to make sure facilities are in as good shape as possible.”

“We’re not talking extravagant remodels,” he said. “We’re talking about meat-and-potatoes things like heating, ventilation, electricals, plumbing and roofing. We want to let people know we’re not done improving the district for kids.”

He said the district has moved the location of 22 classes this year because of declining enrollment and downsizing, and school officials want to be certain the rooms are painted, the plumbing and heating works and the roofs don’t leak.

McCarthy acknowledged that it’s a dicey time to ask taxpayers for money.

Not only are school district residents feeling the economic pinch along with others in the country, but several requests for taxpayer money already are on the horizon.

There’s a $15.2 million bond issue on the November ballot for a new swimming pool and recreation center, and an $8.2 million request for funds to revamp the Langley Marina.

Also on the November ballot is the formation of a Public Utility District, which would take over electrical service from Puget Sound Energy at a yet-to-be-determined cost that would be in the millions.

Meanwhile, Fire District 3 wants to build a new headquarters and training facility in Bayview, and is expected to ask taxpayers for $4 million, although no date has been set.

And Whidbey General Hospital officials expect to go ahead soon with a long-awaited new wing to upgrade patient and surgical facilities. No date has been set to put the measure before the taxpayers, but officials expect the request would be between $40 million and $50 million.

McCarthy, however, said he has faith that residents in the school district would go along with “a reasonable request.”

“As long as citizens are convinced we’re watching their money closely and at the same time doing necessary maintenance, we believe they would consider supporting such an issue as they have in the past,” he said.

“I know we’re just one entity looking for tax money, but we’re talking about buildings in which the youths of the community are educated.”

On a related topic, McCarthy said that a seismic evaluation of Langley Middle School has been completed, and the school board will review it at a meeting Oct. 8.

He said engineers who participated in the study will attend the meeting, and will be asked to determine how much it would cost to make the facility earthquake-safe.

“There are lots of emotional ties to this building,” McCarthy said. “We’re not prepared to say yet that if the cost is too high, we’re going to close it.”

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