South Whidbey school bond to be on ballot again

Nearly two months after the failure of an $80 million bond, the South Whidbey School Board has decided to move forward with another bond request, this time for the general election ballot.

The original request did not receive the required supermajority of 60% of “yes” votes in the April 25 special election, falling short at 58%.

School officials are seeking to fund maintenance and improvements at the district’s two main facilities, the middle school/high school and the elementary school’s north campus. Some of these projects include new siding, a roof replacement, the remodel of locker rooms and restrooms, repavement of parking lots and the installation of turf for the stadium field, among other things.

The last approved school bond proposal was in 1992.

During a combined workshop and regular school board meeting Wednesday night, the board and the public spent over two hours discussing the bond. Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Dan Poolman led a presentation that outlined the rough costs for each project on the list of priorities. When factoring in sales tax, inflation, architectural, engineering and design fees, the price of permits and special inspections and the cost of the election, that puts the bond’s total at just over $80 million.

“We have to understand that everything’s going to cost more in 2024, 2025, 2026 than it does today,” Poolman told the board.

He acknowledged that some small projects could be accomplished with a levy, but the district wouldn’t be able to raise enough money without a bond for larger projects like replacing the entire roof of the middle school and high school building.

Superintendent Jo Moccia said some projects, like security upgrades, will be moving ahead whether or not a bond passes.

Members of the public weighed in on the aftermath of the bond’s failure. Many seemed surprised by how little they had heard about the bond prior to the special election; district staff pointed to the multiple school board meetings about it, in addition to an article in the South Whidbey Record. Moccia also said the district was trying to avoid being cited by the Public Disclosure Commission for using staff resources to promote the bond.

Charlene Davenport of Clinton said South Whidbey is becoming more of a retirement community, and she heard from folks that they couldn’t afford the extra tax.

“I think you really need to educate the senior community … to help them realize that they are promoting the future,” Davenport said.

Rufus Rose, also of Clinton, questioned why the board waited until the last minute to put the bond on the April special election ballot and said it struck him as a strategy to not discuss it deeply with the public.

Gwendy Hastings of Freeland implored the board to wait to pass a bond until interest rates go down, while others provided reasons why the maintenance simply could not wait any longer. Audrey Gmerek, the board’s former student representative, spoke about how there was a bucket in one of her classrooms last year to collect water falling from the ceiling.

“That is not normal,” she said. “That is not what students should be experiencing every day.”

Some may view the high school/middle school courtyard makeover as an aesthetic improvement, but Board Member Joe Greenheron said he met a student who broke their ankle in the courtyard because of its state of disrepair.

A Record story earlier this year noted prevalent water damage and a sizable hole in the ceiling of at least one classroom, dim lighting and an open air corridor stained with bird droppings.

Though the board considered separating the bond request into two or three different measures based on the urgency of individual projects, Moccia cautioned the board against parsing it out.

“When you provide that much choice, you will get what you ask for and then we have a building that we can’t occupy but a beautiful athletic facility,” she said.

Ultimately, the board settled on an amount of $79.8 million for the November ballot, which takes into account a few of the projects that will be removed from the list this summer. The board members agreed that they may decide to modify that amount, however, at a meeting in July. They expressed curiosity about an approach that would make one bond contingent upon the passing of another, which Moccia said she would check the legality of.

This year’s general election is Tuesday, Nov. 7.