On an older, yellow school bus, traveling to the Key Peninsula across Purdy Bridge, two Peninsula School District constituents sit across the aisle from each other.
Sara Patinkin is a graduate of Peninsula High School who has two children attending Purdy Elementary. Marie Sipple is a retired woman in her 60s who has never voted in favor of a bond or levy because she said she is staunchly against tax increases.
The women are taking a tour with Peninsula School District Superintendent Rob Manahan, school board director Deborah Krishnadasan and other residents to visit three schools in the district that are in need of repairs and safety updates. The tour is one of many Manahan has hosted in past weeks to garner support for the upcoming $220-million bond proposal on the April 24 ballot.
The bond monies will be used to build a new elementary school to ease overcrowding, make major repairs and updates to some of the district's oldest buildings and create more classroom space for students across the district. The tour April 12 was one of Manahan’s last chances to help voters see where repairs are needed and what state a few of the schools are in before ballots are returned by next week’s deadline. The bond will need 60 percent plus one of the votes to pass.
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“My family and I moved back to the area in August,” Patinkin said. “I am in support of the bond. My kids are going to attend Peninsula High School so I want to see what they are going to need. Also education has evolved, and I think our schools need to catch up."
Sipple was convinced to attend the tour by her pastor, Mark Willson of Harbor Covenant Church, who wanted her to see firsthand what the district is proposing to do with the bond money.
“I’m going to be real honest, I have never voted for a tax increase in my entire life,” Sipple said. “I am of the mindset that, I chose not to have children, I shouldn’t have to pay for them the rest of my life. I don’t care if people think that’s selfish, it’s just as selfish as a person that has five kids and expects me to pay for a college education. It’s a two-way street.”
“I talked to my pastor, his wife is an educator and they have three kids, and I said, ‘Listen, Mark, I am sick and tired of the property taxes … they went up $500 last year. And he said, ‘Marie, do you know they have sprinkler systems that don’t work?’ I said I didn’t know that.”
Sipple said she didn’t believe the district’s buildings were as bad as her pastor and the school community were leading others to believe, so she decided to go on the tour and see with her own eyes. She talked openly with Patinkin about how money in the district should be spent and why they should, or shouldn’t, vote to pass the bond.
AN AGING BLAST FROM THE PAST
The first stop on the tour was Peninsula High School, Patinkin’s alma mater.
“Oh my gosh I am having flashbacks,” Patinkin said while walking into the school’s wood and construction shop. “It seems nothing has changed.”
Peninsula High School was built 70 years ago and its most recent upgrade happened almost 30 years ago. While the high school boasts a high graduation rate, a low staff turnaround and innovative classes, the classrooms are cold, crowded and feature what some may say are vintage floors and ceilings.
In the art room, kids have to sit elbow-to-elbow with electric cords and plugs dangling from the ceiling at face level. Water stains are features in almost every classroom along with rooms that are just a bit colder than the rest of the school.
“If you look at this space, picture it with 30 students and thousands of electrical outlets and soldering irons,” Christine Buchanan, a teacher in the art department, said. “It’s a criss-cross nightmare. The kids want to take the class and they are all working. What we could do, is we could build a bigger, safer space. We’ve had leaks they’ve tried to fix before. Students are looking at the same leaks their parents looked at. We are trying to clear off counters so we can have room. For 20 years, I haven’t had enough space.”
It wasn’t just the art department with leaks. The strength training room connected to the gymnasium was covered in brown stains, cracks in the walls and missing ceiling tiles. Peninsula High School principal David Goodwin was hesitant to show the room to the tour group, saying it was closed the year before because of a roof leak that left the room unusable. The guest locker room was missing pieces of the ceiling as well and featured old lockers and paint.
“This looks exactly the same,” Patinkin said. “Nothing has changed, and it was old then. Learning has changed dramatically since I was in school, and these buildings don’t reflect that. I want my children to get a good education so they can be competitive in the future, so their school buildings need to reflect that. It’s a big conundrum.”
The high school auditorium featured seating from the original seats from 1969. Even though the auditorium is used frequently by the public, it has not received any upgrades in decades. Out in the hallways during lunch, students find spots on the ground or in classrooms instead of the cafeteria, which is also crowded.
“We had to split lunch into two different times,” Goodwin said. “If every student tried to sit in the cafeteria, there would be no room.” Peninsula High School has 1,380 students enrolled this school year and represent a diverse group from different socioeconomic backgrounds that is becoming more racially diverse as it grows.
Sipple looked around as Manahan mentioned it would cost about $50 million to finish the work on the school.
“I didn’t have a lot of the classes these students do now when I went to school as a girl in Illinois,” she said back on the bus. “But it can’t be good for the kids to have those leaks.”
The second stop: Key Peninsula Middle School. Principal Jeri Goebel takes the tour to a few classrooms that were updated in 1981. The classrooms have locked doors and windows leading directly outside and removable walls in between each room. Goebel said the walls cause a problem because they do not block noise, which can be a distraction from one classroom to the next.
A step into a engineering classroom leaves the tourgoers cold.
“We’d get our HVAC systems updated,” Manahan said, about a component of the bond. “So when you press the heat button, the heat comes on and when you press for air conditioning, the air conditioning comes on. It’s kind of a novelty because it does not happen much in our schools. But we can make it happen.”
Goebel said sometimes the system takes up to 20 minutes to turn on. Manahan said $38 million for renovation would not only replace HVAC systems but expand the older classrooms to create more space for engineering and science classes.
As the tour continues, Sipple spots the portable buildings outside. Goebel says the portables are necessary to create more classroom space for the school, which is overcrowded. The portable classrooms are only meant to be a temporary fix, especially since they do not include bathrooms. During lunch, students sometimes find themselves locked out of the building when returning to the portables.
“We have six classrooms out there, three double portables,” Goebel said. “There are not well-covered and they don’t have a bathroom. So the problem is it takes time away from class.”
Manahan said the school has issues with water flows, students have to bring a water bottle to pour into a toilet to get it to flush and the drinking fountains don’t always provide water.
“I’m sorry that should be illegal,” Sipple said. “This is just pathetic.”
“This place just looks old and dark,” Patinkin said. “The kids really deserve better. We need to get rid of the cold rooms.”
The last stop is Minter Creek Elementary. The small school utilizes its original gymnasium as the gymnasium, auditorium and cafeteria.
“It’s our cafe-gym-atorium,” principal Ty Robuck said. “This gym was built 32 years ago and is next to our offices.”
Robuck leads the tour with two student leaders through the small hallways, crowded with computer desks students use and boxes of supplies. He shows the tour the tiny reading room that also serves as the school’s science department office. Classrooms show two teachers working with double class sizes and a science teacher gives a lecture on insects to kindergartners on a cart.
“We use every inch of space,” Robuck said.
One of the bigger issues, Robuck said, is the old HVAC systems that have burnt belts. The previous year, students had to be evacuated multiple times due to smoke and smell.
“We’d be happy with more classrooms,” Robuck said. “We need better security for our students. But we have a happy group.”
Patinkin and Sipple are quiet by the end of the tour. On the bus, the two share ideas.
“I want our community to support our kids,” Patinkin said. “It seemed like they are bursting at the seams. It seems cluttered. It goes back to what I was saying, we need the community to back our buildings."
“The portables are so absurd to me,” Sipple said. “The fact they don’t have a cafeteria, but use the gym, that’s bad news. But the cool thing is, the kids are really well behaved. The space is ridiculously low but the teachers are working around it. It’s a driving force.”
“You have one more yes vote now,” Sipple tells Manahan on the bus.
Ballots due April 24
The $220-million bond proposal is the only item on the ballots mailed out to Peninsula School District residents on the Gig Harbor and Key Peninsulas.
Ballots must be postmarked or turned into drop boxes by 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 24.
Drop boxes are at Gig Harbor Fire Station, 6711 Kimball Drive; Key Peninsula Fire Station #46, 8911 Key Peninsula Hwy KPN; Point Fosdick Safeway, 4811 Point Fosdick Drive NW; Purdy Fire Station, 5210 144th St. NW.
The school district will need a supermajority for the bond to pass.