PORT ANGELES — Business leaders heard presentations of both sides of the Port Angeles School District levy debate Tuesday.
The measure before voters next month was described as a “vote for the future of Port Angeles” and a “horrendous tax increase” in a Port Angeles Business Association forum.
Voter will consider Feb. 11 a five-year, $52.6 million capital levy to renovate and expand Stevens Middle School and begin a 30-year plan to upgrade the district’s other schools.
Jim Haguewood, past president of the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce and a levy proponent, said the measure would make Port Angeles more appealing to entrepreneurs.
“Ultimately, this increases the attractiveness for families to move to our area, and that’s what we need,” Haguewood told about 30 PABA members at their weekly breakfast meeting at Joshua’s Restaurant.
“I’m optimistic on the future of Port Angeles, and that’s why I’m supporting this levy and the school renewal plan.”
Dan Shotthafer of the anti-levy Citizens for Affordable Schools said the district’s proposal is a “horrendous tax increase” that would exacerbate the housing crisis.
“We’re speaking for those folks that really can’t speak, the ones that are living on the edge,” Shotthafer said.
Shotthafer said there are more affordable ways to improve the district’s schools, including modular construction and energy-efficient lighting, windows and heat pumps.
“We are not against a small levy to take care of some of these things that should have been taken care of over time,” Shotthafer said.
“We’re not against schools or kids or anything like that. We’re talking about affordability.”
Proposition 1 would raise the Port Angeles School District’s local levy rate by $2.62 per $1,000 of assessed value. It would result in a $4.12 total school levy.
A $2.62 levy increase is equal to a $655 property tax increase for the owner of a $250,000 home.
The measure would generate an estimated $52.6 million over five years and fund the expansion and remodel of Stevens Middle School and re-establish a sixth- through eighth-grade middle school system.
It would trigger a 30-year plan to upgrade aging facilities at Franklin, Hamilton and Roosevelt elementary schools and Port Angeles High School, all of which are in poor or unsatisfactory condition, district officials said.
Ballots will be mailed Jan. 22 for the Feb. 11 special election. Overseas and military ballots were mailed Friday, County Auditor Shoona Riggs said.
Other school measures will be considered by voters in the Crescent and Cape Flattery school districts.
Haguewood said the chamber board voted unanimously in November to support the Port Angeles School District levy proposal.
A unanimous Port Angeles City Council backed the levy in December.
“The levy and capital facilities plan lay out a path for the future strength of our community,” Haguewood said.
“Strong economic programs in modern facilities reflect our community values and priorities.”
Haguewood said the district’s proposal improves school safety and security, provides a performance-based capital plan, establishes property tax predictability and achieves operational and educational efficiencies.
“This is a good plan at the right time,” said Haguewood, who added that the measure is a “vote for the future of Port Angeles.”
Shotthafer said a 175-percent increase in the local school levy is too costly for a community with a $22,000 median income.
“You folks are about business, and you how this is going to affect businesses,” Shotthafer told PABA members.
“There’s no panacea here. There’s no study that shows that upgrading your schools here are going to suddenly create more business.”
District officials say the levy would create more space for elementary schools because sixth-graders would be moved back to Stevens Middle School.
Shotthafer said district enrollment of 3,514 was well below the 4,200 predicted for the current school year.
“There’s not even a need to move the sixth grade, therefore we don’t have to fill all those new classrooms,” he said.
Port Angeles School District Superintendent Martin Brewer said the state encourages schools to have a 17-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio for kindergarten through third-grade classes.
There are no available classrooms at Franklin and Jefferson elementary schools and one open classroom at Hamilton Elementary School, Brewer said.
“Yes, our enrollment is flat, but what’s happening is with the 17-to-1 ratio — and we’re honoring that because we get more funding when we equal that mandate — our class space is not available,” Brewer told the PABA members.
“We have six total classrooms (available) at the elementary level, five of which are at Dry Creek, so it doesn’t really impact the east side of town.”
The school district’s 2018 levy proposal, which failed to gain a simple majority by 115 votes, would have resulted in a $5.48 total levy.
State taxes went up while local taxes went down in the wake of the McCleary decision, a state Supreme Court ruling on school funding.
Before McCleary, Port Angeles School District’s Maintenance and Operations Levy was $3.01 per $1,000 of assessed value.
That rate was cut to $1.50 and the levy was renamed Educational Programs and Operations (EP&O).
The Port Angeles School Board did not raise the local levy above $1.50 because it “trusted that citizens would then commit additional dollars into capital facilities,” Haguewood said.
“When you write your check, you’re not looking at ‘Well, the local side’s only $1.50, and they’re holding the line on this,’” Shotthafer said.
“That dog won’t hunt.”
Shotthafer estimated that it would cost $2 million to $5 million to make needed improvements at Stevens Middle School. Teachers and students in the district have complained about the roaring sound of heaters.
“There’s thousands of other schools, 5,000 high schools, I believe, in this country that were built before 1950,” Shotthafer said.
“They don’t just bulldoze those schools. They do a constant renovation.”
Shotthafer said the economic situation in Port Angeles is not conducive to a property tax increase.
“Things are not well here in Port Angeles,” Shotthafer said.
“You have to see that. If you don’t see it, I can’t help you.”
Haguewood said Port Angeles was on the verge of a “renaissance.”
“There’s $140 million of private investment that is planned for downtown Port Angeles in the next few years,” Haguewood said.
“That is encompassed in nine projects. Five of those nine projects are currently underway and planned for completion by 2021. So it’s real. That’s real investment.”
District officials have posted information about the levy proposal at www.portangelesschools.org.
Citizens for Affordable Schools has information at www.stoppaschooltax.com.
Port Angeles Citizens for Education, aka PACE, is an all-volunteer group of concerned citizens working together to support the Port Angeles School District, according to its website. Find more information on this group at www.yesforpaschools.org.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].