It’s lunch time at Emerald Ridge High School on Puyallup’s South Hill, and kids pour into the school commons area.
Genesis Nomura and three friends munch away as the crowd builds. And they’re standing up as they eat.
There are a few empty single seats in spots around the commons, but nowhere for four girls to sit together.
“Some people go outside to eat, even if it’s cold,” the sophomore said.
Lunchtime isn’t the only time there are crowds.
Genesis and her friends compare navigating packed school hallways during passing time to driving down Meridian Avenue at rush hour. Sometimes the jams make them late for class, they said.
That’s the effect of cramming 1,600 teenagers into a school built with a capacity of 1,400, according to Principal Brian Lowney.
Some overflow goes into 13 portable classrooms, but all students have to share the commons, restrooms and other areas at Puyallup’s newest high school, which opened in 2000.
The Puyallup School District is asking voters to help alleviate overcrowding at Emerald Ridge and other schools with a bond measure for $279.6 million. Voters should receive ballots in the mail soon for the Feb. 12 election.
HIGH SCHOOL EXPANSION
The bond would pay for classroom space for 400 at Emerald Ridge. It would relocate the library to allow expansion of the commons.
At Puyallup High School, it would buy a 200-student classroom addition, remove some portable classrooms and open more parking and upgrade playing fields.
At Rogers High School – home to classrooms that kids call “Portable Village” – the bond would finance an addition to house 400 students, build a practice gym, upgrade athletic fields and construct storage space for the performing arts center.
Lack of high school capacity is one reason the district halted efforts to move its ninth-graders from junior highs to high schools, Superintendent Tim Yeomans said.
The bond would also build a 750-student elementary school on district-owned property in the southwest part of the district, where more students are expected. It would expand Pope Elementary School, replace and expand Sunrise Elementary and build a new, larger Firgrove Elementary.
Firgrove sits close to the busy Meridian thoroughfare. It was built when the area was more rural and before the school was even part of the Puyallup district, said school board member Greg Heath, who also heads the citizens’ committee campaigning for the school bond.
A new Firgrove would be re-positioned safely away from the busy street.
The bond would also finance improvements at four other schools and pay for technology upgrades districtwide.
RATE WOULD INCREASE
The current bond rate for the 2013 tax year is $2.06 per $1,000 of property value.
If Puyallup voters approve the new bond, the district estimates that the rate would rise to $2.94 per thousand for the 2014 tax year, then climb to $2.97 in 2015. It would stay that way through 2025 when the district will finish paying off some older bond debt; the rate would then drop to an even $2.
The district estimates the bond would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $148 more per year – less than earlier projections which put the cost at about $180 per year.
Yeomans said the district has been a good steward of taxpayer dollars. He points to a recent refinancing of old bond debt that saved $23 million.
Although Puyallup school enrollment had dropped somewhat during the recession, district officials say Puyallup is poised to regain its boom status.
Yeomans said applications for housing starts in the district are on the rise again.
Current district projections show more kids arriving in Puyallup schools, especially in the South Hill area.
By the 2017-18 school year, the district expects more than 1,100 new elementary school students and 500 new high school students than it has today.
Junior high populations are projected to drop by just more than 300, which is why the bond would add no junior high space.
“We are basically going to be at the heart of growth,” Heath said. “We want to be prepared.”
The last time Puyallup voters approved a school bond was in 2004. That election authorized the sale of bonds worth $198.5 million.
In 2007, the district twice asked voters for a $259.5 million bond – and twice, the voters said no. In March 2009, a $257 million bond proposal also failed.
Bond measures must be approved by a 60-percent supermajority of voters to pass.
Bond opponent Andy Asmussen, who wrote the statement against passage for the voters pamphlet, said district officials ought to pay more attention to history.
“They should pull their heads out of the sand and look at all the foreclosures,” he said. “People are not working. People are having a hard time as it is.”
The retired airline mechanic, who has lived in the district since 1989, believes too much of his local property taxes support local education.
He dismisses district arguments that the time is right to build when interest rates and construction costs are low.
“The way the economy is going, I don’t see interest rates going up in the near term,” he said.
Asmussen also fears what might happen on a state level due to a state Supreme Court decision on school funding. He believes the decision could eventually raise statewide school taxes.
“If we take on another bond, you’re just hitting everybody from both sides,” he said. “It’s a perfect storm.”
He said he can see the need for some bond projects, such as replacing the aging Firgrove Elementary. But he’s not sure of the need for everything else.
He suggests the district would be more successful if it proposed a smaller bond.
Puyallup traditionally has been recognized as a destination school district. But officials say that reputation is hard to maintain when an estimated 20 percent of their 20,500 students spend at least some of each school day in portable space.
Yeomans said that’s the highest proportion of any large school district in the state.
District officials have also heard parent complaints about security concerns in portables.
The bond would eliminate the need for roughly a third of 220 portable classrooms.
“They are supposed to be temporary,” Yeomans said. “But they have become so ‘normal,’ they have been there so long, that people don’t see them.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635