The state of the facilities that serve the youngest children in Oak Harbor Public Schools is shameful.
Children wear puffy winter coats all day to stay warm and walk outside in the rain to go to the bathroom because of the district’s reliance on portable classrooms, which can’t possibly provide adequate security. Special education classes are taught in staff break rooms. Children are told to stay away from certain areas when cracks form in asbestos-laden floors and tiles. Pre-school children with special needs are waitlisted for a specialized program because the district doesn’t have enough space.
The list of problems with the schools goes on, but voters can help turn the situation around. If a $121 million school bond proposal set for a Feb. 14 special election passes, three schools will be rebuilt and security upgraded across the district.
Remarkably, the Department of Defense will provide 80% matching funds to rebuild Crescent Harbor Elementary and the building that houses both Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center and Home Connection. After all, many of the students in the two schools are from Navy families that live on federal property that is exempt from property taxes.
Nevertheless, it’s a sign of how bad the problems are when the Pentagon gets involved in building schools.
The total cost of the multiple projects — with federal matching funds — is estimated at $237 million, with property taxes funding $121 million through the bond measure. The bond needs a supermajority of 60% “yes” votes to pass. The tax rate is expected to be around $1.24 per 1,000 assessed property value, which is 30 cents less than what taxpayers in the district were paying in 2022, before a previous bond measure was paid off.
Passage of the bond measure won’t solve all the problems with district buildings. The school board originally considered a $429 million list of projects that included construction of five new elementary schools and a transportation center. To make it more palatable to Oak Harbor voters, it was pared to a proposal to construct three new elementary schools, a new HomeConnection/Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center and a new transportation center. The $184 million bond measure failed miserably in a special election a year ago.
Again, school officials pared the project and are presenting it to the voters.
Even if the bond passes — which is a must — construction of the first building is likely two or three years away. That means hundreds of more students will be taught out of these buildings, one of which a principal called “substandard.”
How were things allowed to get this bad?
The answer is likely a combination of factors. School officials were surely aware that a bond measure might be a hard sell among conservative voters on North Whidbey, which proved to be the case last year. Waiting until a past bond measure was paid off and presenting one, unified package of absolutely necessary projects may have seemed like a good idea, even though it meant letting facilities crumble around young students.
In addition, the public at large wasn’t aware of the depth of the problems. The former superintendent has been accused of focusing more on making the district — and himself — look good than honestly presenting serious problems.
It’s a new day. In the last year, the district gained a new superintendent, Michelle Kuss-Cybula, and two new school board members. The challenges are clear and solutions are being worked on, though the passage of the bond is only one step.
It’s time for voters to step up and ensure that the youngest students have schools they are excited to attend, not places that present a negative message to children about the community’s priorities.