Sequim School Board balks at bond measure on November ballot

Sequim Schools Superintendent Gary Neal discusses plans for a $55 million bond with board directors at the Sequim Transit Center last week. — Michael Dashiell/Olympic Peninsula News Group ()

SEQUIM — The need for refurbished and modernized classrooms — and more of them — is imperative, Sequim School Board members agree.

But a proposal may not go before voters as soon as the November general election.

After a week of considering details of a proposed $55 million school construction bond, board members got their first chance to discuss the plan in an open meeting Wednesday.

CFW Public Finance Implementation Services of Spokane recommended in the plan that the School Board adopt a proposed capital improvement program and call for an election in November on a $55 million general obligation bond to upgrade and construct improvements to the district’s K-12 facilities.

Superintendent Gary Neal urged the board to pursue the bond measure.

But while board members said the new proposal addresses many concerns of both proponents and opponents in the four ballot proposals that have failed since April 2014, they also worried that the bond price tag may be too steep for voters and that a contentious November general election might not be the best time to run it.

“This is probably the best proposal we’ve seen,” said board member Mike Howe.

“[But] I’m concerned about the dollar amount going to the voters.

“I know this community will support the right bond at the right time with the right approach. I’m not sure this is it.

“[And] I don’t know if we have enough time to sell this to the community.”

Added director Heather Short: “November makes me very nervous. I want it to be something smart and I want it to pass.”

“I’d rather have something lesser that passes than a $55 million [bond proposal] that doesn’t pass,” said Robin Henrikson, board vice president.

“I’m looking for a bond proposal we can all support.”

After deliberating a number of individual items in the proposal, most board directors concurred that they’d rather take time to consider the proposed bond’s dollar figure and plausibility of it passing on a general election ballot.

“It sounds like November is off the table,” Henrikson said, noting that more time could give board members time to be unified in a plan.

The idea of putting the proposal on hold, however, rankled Neal.

“I’m embarrassed. I’m disappointed and I need some clarity. Why did you run me through this if you wanted to make a plan?” Neal asked.

“I’m angry at this point. How long do you want to push this out?”

Howe responded: “It’s not the number; it’s the plan. If it keeps failing, that’s what’s embarrassing. We have failed four times on this plan.

“This may be the right number,” Howe said. “I want this board to look at options.”

Bond proposal history

Voters have rejected four school construction bond proposals in the past two years, including a $154 million package in April 2014, a $49.2 million bond plan in February 2015, a $49.3 million plan in November 2015 and the most recent bond proposal, a $54 million proposal Feb. 10, 2016.

Each of the three recent proposals gained at least 57 percent of the overall vote but fell short of the 60 percent supermajority required for passage.

Shift from past

The newest bond plan marks a shift from the four previous in that is focused on providing educational opportunities, Neal said.

The proposal includes $7 million for rooms and significant upgrades to the current Helen Haller Elementary School and, in an effort to relieve overcrowding districtwide and immediately at Helen Haller, adds a new $12.3 million, 14-classroom facility to be constructed next to the choir, band and gymnasium facility across from Sequim Community School.

Previous proposals sought to build a new elementary school east of the main district campus.

The Helen Haller facility, school officials have said previously, is plagued by inadequate space for existing student population — 619 as of June 2016 — inadequate security and a lack of access to bathroom facilities.

“Helen Haller, where my daughter goes, is horrid,” Howe said. “It’s unsafe.”

The new plan proposes the biggest expenditure at Sequim High School, where $25.1 million in costs is planned to, among other things, add a two-story math and science building to replace six portables now housing the math and science classrooms.

The plan also includes classroom and security upgrades at Greywolf Elementary and Sequim Middle schools.

In all, the bond proposal would cost $55 million plus interest: $59.3 million in original costs, minus $4.3 million in state funding provided to the district for tearing down the unused portion of Sequim Community School.

“I really like the fact we aren’t building a new school, but we are repurposing so many [buildings],” Short said. “That to me is what you do when you don’t have enough to make ends meet.”

Plan substantiated

Neal said the $55 million bond proposal plan is substantiated by four public listening sessions, multiple “coffee chats” and individual conversations, plus a survey of 400 district residents completed recently by CFW.

Survey results indicate of the 400 residents surveyed in June, about 68 percent would support a $54 million bond, according to CFW president Ernest Flores.

Survey results are at www.sequim.k12.wa.us.

“This isn’t CFW’s [plan],” Neal clarified Wednesday. “This is my plan of what we need to do for our students. This is based on 36 years of my profession.

“This is what the community, in several capacities, is telling me what they will support,” he said.

Were the board to place the bond on general election ballots, they’d need to have a resolution drafted and to the Clallam County elections office by Tuesday.

“We can’t go another year without this,” Neal said. “I want a resolution ready by Monday.”

But board members balked at the idea.

“I don’t think this particular package will pass in November [and] I’m tired of feeling rushed and pushed,” Howe said.

“I appreciate all the work Gary and [CFW] put into this,” Short said. “I’m just uneasy at $55 million.”

Instead of running the bond proposal in November, board directors said they may consider a February 2017 bond plan. However, board members noted, that’s the same time they had hoped to run a special election to reaffirm the district’s educational programs and operations levy.

________

Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at editor@sequimgazette.com.

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