The Tacoma School Board is exploring asking voters next winter to approve $500 million for more than a dozen new and remodeled Tacoma schools, ranging from a permanent home for the Science and Math Institute to a completed remodel at Wilson High School.
But first, board members want to hear from the community. They have scheduled a public hearing this week on the possibility of holding a bond election in February.
Then they hope to approve placing the bond measure on the ballot at their Oct. 25 meeting.
The district has a list of 14 capital projects, many directed at the oldest school buildings. One, a $28 million modernization of the historic Washington-Hoyt Elementary, is already happening. The cost was included in a capital levy approved by voters in 2010.
But school district officials say current economic conditions would allow them to refinance part of their current debt for a long-term savings of more than $9.8 million.
They say voter approval of a bond measure would let them take advantage of a new rate estimated at 1.98 percent versus the current 4.91 percent.
That would free up the district’s taxing capacity and require an increase of less than $1 per $1,000 of assessed value in tax rates to fund the bond through 2020.
Included on the district to-do list:
• A home for the Science and Math Institute at Point Defiance. The school has been contained in portable buildings since it opened in 2009.
• Modernization of Wilson High School, built in 1958. The project’s first phase was completed in 2007.
• Modernization of two historic schools: McCarver Elementary School in the Hilltop neighborhood and Stewart Middle School on Pacific Avenue.
• Replacement of elementary schools including Arlington, Birney, Boze, Browns Point, Downing, Grant and Mary Lyon.
• New buildings to replace two schools that the district closed in recent years: Wainwright Elementary and Hunt Middle School.
Big-ticket, long-term bond measures are the traditional route to building new schools and remodeling old ones. Capital levies collect tax dollars for shorter time periods and are easier to pass. (Capital levies need only a simple majority of yes votes, while bond measures require a 60-percent approval rate.)
The last bond measure approved by Tacoma voters was in 2001. They shot down bond measures in 2006 and 2009, but in 2010 approved a more modest capital levy for more than $140 million. It was designed to pay for two new middle schools – Baker and Hunt – as well as renovation of Washington-Hoyt.
A new Baker opened in January and plans are under way for Washington-Hoyt. But the Hunt project was placed on hold after the school was closed in 2010 due to declining enrollment and low test scores.
Taxpayers in the Tacoma School District currently pay a total tax rate of just over $7 per $1,000 of assessed value. That rate includes an operations levy, the capital levy and previous bond.
If a new bond measure is approved by voters on the Feb. 12 ballot, the tax rate would rise to just over $7.80 per $1,000 through 2020.
The district has a long-term master plan aimed at replacing and modernizing Tacoma’s aging school buildings. But board members say they’re also aware they will need to keep an eye on enrollment projections to ensure new schools are built first where needed most. They also acknowledge that a new school building can make demographic projections obsolete by attracting new students from across the city.
“Every time we build a new building, it fills up,” said board member Debbie Winskill. “It’s good for neighborhoods.”
If Tacoma proceeds with a February bond request, it will join Pierce County’s second-largest school district in asking voters for construction money at the same election. In August, the Puyallup School Board agreed to ask voters for a $279 million bond measure to fund a list of capital projects, including a new elementary school on South Hill and added space at the district’s three comprehensive high schools.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635