Gig Harbor, Key Peninsula voters to decide $50 million school levy

Staff writerOctober 9, 2013 

Voters in Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula will decide on a $50 million school construction measure that supporters say is vital to relieve overcrowding in the growing 8,500-student Peninsula School District.

But opponents argue the plans aren’t well thought out, nor sufficiently spelled out in legal documents. They also say voters are in no mood to approve money for new school construction without proof the district has exhausted other options, such as shifting school boundaries as housing developments rise in the Gig Harbor North area.

Ballots are scheduled to go out in the mail at the end of next week for the Nov. 5 election.

If the four-year capital levy is approved, the district plans to build a new elementary school across from the Tom Taylor YMCA on property purchased this year for $4.4 million. The school is intended to relieve pressure on Purdy Elementary, now about 30 percent over capacity. Many of the district’s other schools are near or over capacity as well, according to district figures.

The district also plans to re-build Artondale Elementary, which opened in the 1950s and has had numerous additions and renovations. School officials say it’s now more economical to replace Artondale.

The cost of each new elementary school is estimated at $22.5 million.

The district promises to spend $2 million on technology enhancements, as well as roughly the same amount on new athletic fields for Gig Harbor and Peninsula high schools. It also wants to explore partnering with community groups to build playing fields.

An estimated $1 million would be spent on health and safety measures, including security at all elementary schools.

Opponent Ken Manning, who chairs the Citizens for Responsible School Spending committee, said the School Board should have included specific projects in its resolution on the ballot measure.

Peninsula Superintendent Chuck Cuzzetto said the resolution was drafted by the district’s attorneys and that the ballot title was created by the county. He says it’s no secret what the money’s intended for.

“Our plan for the use of the funds was agreed to at (a) July board meeting and has been on our website, disclosed at every presentation and posted at every school,” he said. “In fact, we went as far as to put a sign on the new property to be as transparent as possible.”

Candidates for Peninsula School Board have become intertwined with the levy on the same ballot. Harlan Gallinger is running unopposed for his board seat; he also chairs the levy support committee. He calls arguments over the wording of the board resolution “splitting hairs.”

“Our schools are overcrowded,” he said. “We need more space.”

Rick Jones, another School Board incumbent, faces challenger David Olson in the only contested race.

Jones said the levy is overdue. He said those who advocate solving overcrowded schools by shifting students around the district aren’t looking at the geography. Moving students from Gig Harbor to Key Peninsula schools, for example, would require longer bus rides that Jones said would be “tough on kids, tough on bus drivers.”

Olson said he’s trying to be careful what he says about the levy. He said he will support voters’ decision, whatever it is. But he’s critical of the board for not holding a larger conversation before placing the measure before voters.

“If they would have engaged the community more, been more thoughtful and transparent, maybe the community wouldn’t be so divided,” Olson said.

WHAT DOES IT COST?

The capital levy would raise $12.5 million annually for four years, beginning with tax collections in 2014. The levy’s estimated tax rate per $1,000 of assessed property value would be $1.42 the first year, falling to $1.35 in the last year of collection in 2017.

Opponents’ yard signs warn that the levy would mean a 55 percent tax increase. Jerry Gibbs, treasurer for the anti-levy committee, said his group arrived at that figure by comparing existing levy rates with future rates if the capital levy is approved.

Levy supporters say the signs are misleading.

Next year, according to district figures, voters are projected to pay the district $2.87 per $1,000 of property value, which includes both an existing operations levy and payments on bond debt approved by voters in 2003. The capital levy would cause that total rate to rise to $4.29 next year — about a third more than voters would pay if the November levy fails.

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