The basement of Collins Elementary School bears the stamp of its Depression-era construction.
“WPA 1937” reads the carving in the water-stained concrete floor. WPA was the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal program that gave public works jobs to millions during the depths of the Great Depression.
Collins, located on 128th Street between Waller and Canyon roads, is one of five aging elementary schools that the Franklin Pierce School District hopes to replace through a $157 million, 20-year bond measure that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The red-brick Collins, where construction began in 1935, evokes a nostalgic image from the outside. Inside, it looks clean and presentable.
“We work hard at keeping it polished,” said Doug Vanderleest, assistant director of operations and maintenance for the school district.
But problems lie underground and behind the scenes, according to officials. The school uses a septic system that was installed when the school population was much smaller. Two summers ago, workers had to dig up the playground to fix it.
Collins Principal Barb Mondloch said sometimes strange odors waft from the musty school basement into the classrooms. With plumbing buried beneath concrete slab floors in some parts of the building, even a simple leak can require tearing up a classroom floor for repairs.
The school has had several additions over the years, adding points of entry that are difficult to secure. Students eat lunch in their classrooms, balancing trays on their way back from the food serving area. A high water table creates playground flooding as well as septic problems.
The issues are similar at the district’s other aging elementary schools. A study commissioned by the district looked at James Sales Elementary in Parkland, which dates from 1953. The study by McKinstry, a company that builds and maintains public projects around the country, pointed to aging heating and air circulation equipment, structural problems, a leaky roof, energy wasting single-pane windows and more. Its conclusion: Building a new school would be more cost-effective than renovating the old one.
Estimated cost of the bond per $1,000 of property value
Bond money, if approved by voters, would replace five of the district’s eight elementary schools: Brookdale, Central Avenue, Collins, Harvard and James Sales. It would also pay for other improvements, including:
▪ Secure, access-controlled entryways at every Franklin Pierce school
▪ New science labs for the district’s two comprehensive high schools
▪ A new gym at Ford Middle School
▪ A 500-seat performing arts center at Franklin Pierce High School, which currently doesn’t have one
▪ A grandstand, concession stand and restroom improvements at the district’s sole sports stadium.
Projects chosen for the bond package were determined by a district committee that included parents, staff, students and district residents with no children in the schools.
The average age of schools in the Franklin Pierce district, just outside Tacoma, is 61 years. Only 15 percent of its school buildings have been built since the 1980s. The newest elementary, Midland, opened in 2003.
Franklin Pierce voters have not approved a major construction bond since 1998. In 2008, they twice rejected a bond proposal.
They did approve a short-term capital levy in 2012, which helped build a new commons building at Keithley Middle School, among other projects. That $8.5 million project, which opened in 2014, was the first major new construction project in the school district in more than a decade.
Both the 2012 capital levy and the 1998 bond will expire by the time tax collections for the November bond would begin in 2017.
District officials and bond supporters say the net effect will mean no tax increase, noting that the new bond would essentially take the place of both the old 1998 bond and the 2012 capital levy.
There’s not enough room in the classroom
High school student Hailey Chase
The school district estimates that the new bond would cost Franklin Pierce property owners $2.82 per $1,000 of assessed value per year. Currently, they pay just over $3 per $1,000 through the old bond and capital levy.
But some voters see an opportunity to lower school taxes if the bond isn’t passed. The issue has inspired a lively debate on the school district’s Facebook page.
“Remember this,” writes Patrick Keller Jr. “The tax rate won’t increase, but your property tax bill will increase every year your property value increases by the county.”
That’s true. Rates per thousand are estimates based on projections, and the actual rates fluctuate up and down with property values. Voters approve the $157 million in bonds, and the school district collects enough taxes over the 20 years to support paying off the debt from the bond sale, regardless of whether property values rise or fall.
“Make no mistake,” writes Larry DeFilippis. “The district will sell this tax increase as just one tax replacing another. No matter how you slice it, it is still a tax increase.”
District officials know they must pay heed to tax-sensitive voters. There are few commercial properties within the Franklin Pierce district, so homeowners bear most of the burden for financing school construction. The district says the November bond isn’t an increase, but that it will hold the tax rate voters pay for capital improvements steady for the next 20 years.
Officials also point out that their district’s needs are mounting, while neighboring districts like Tacoma are building new schools.
A visit to Franklin Pierce High School, for example, finds a group of lab-coated forensic science students working on blood spatter experiments in a hallway.
“There’s not enough room in the classroom,” explains sophomore Hailey Chase.
In one science classroom, there’s only a portable sink. In another, a former photo darkroom, there’s one small sink — the kind you might find in your bathroom at home. Science teacher Aimee Marubayashi said her students could use a lab space that’s 10 times bigger.
Number of new elementary schools to be built if the bond passes
The school district has not decided which projects will be built first if voters approve the bond measure. Nor does it have a firm plan in place for where students will move while construction is underway. Analysis of both those issues will cost money that the district cannot afford to spend without bond approval, officials say.
Persuading voters in a crowded presidential election to continue all the way to the down-ballot school bond proposal is another challenge the district must face.
Traditionally, school districts have run bond measures in February special elections.
But Franklin Pierce Superintendent Frank Hewins said that his district has had low voter turnout rates in those elections. A bond measure needs a 60-percent “yes” vote to pass. In addition, turnout must be high enough to validate the election.
Hewins said the high voter numbers generated by a presidential race will boost turnout and give the bond measure a chance at passage.
“Our kids deserve nice facilities,” he said.
More information is available at yes4fps.org