Peninsula schools superintendent on need for $198 million bond: ‘We are now out of space’

In February, residents will vote on a $198 million bond issue for the Peninsula School District.

The request comes months after a $220 million proposal failed to pass by the necessary “super-majority” margin of 60 percent plus one vote.

The Peninsula Gateway spoke with interim Superintendent Art Jarvis about the latest bond request and why the district believes it is needed. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What is this bond paying for?

Answer: It will pay for four additional elementary schools to solve the overcrowding crisis in the Peninsula School District. It would add two new schools, so instead of eight elementary schools the district would have 10. It would replace two existing elementary schools entirely and expand them. That would be Artondale and Evergreen.

Q: So the bond is only for elementary schools?

A: Correct. At this point we have so many needs that we needed to pick a focus and solve the biggest problem first and that’s elementary schools. One-third of our kids are in portable classrooms. You have the equivalent of over two schools’ worth of kids in portables. That’s the most critical need of all of the district.

Peninsula School District interim superintendent Dr. Art Jarvis photographed at the district offices in Purdy, Wash., on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Joshua Bessex

Q: Where will the two new schools be built?

A: One is at the Harbor Hills North site, acquired a few years ago for the purpose of adding an elementary school. That site is ready to go. It’s purchased, it’s in the school district, it’s in the urban growth boundary, it has utilities.

So, if we pass the bond issue, we will begin the planning. It will be launched immediately when the bond passes, and it will take about a year to do all the planning and permitting and designing, and then about another year and a half to construct it.

The other school will begin about a year later. Currently the school district owns the Bujacich site, on Bujacich Road near McCormick Woods Park. There are several complications with that site.

One complication is the urban growth management boundaries. That area of Gig Harbor does not include the Bujacich site, It’s just immediately outside the urban growth boundary. The second issue is fairly direct, but also quite difficult. The Bujacich site does not have utilities. There’s no sewer line that goes to that site, so we need to figure out how we can connect to the Gig Harbor sewer system.

Those two elements have to be vetted and determined this is a good and useable school site. If not, then we need to move quickly to purchase another site.

Q: Will the new elementary schools have portables?

A: No. The things that are being built are schools that will have 30 classrooms each. Those two as well as Artondale will be the three largest schools in the school system. At this point the plan is to not have any portables. I can’t guarantee we can pull all the portables from all the other schools yet. That will depend on the growth level in the school district.

Q: Why were these projects selected?

A: The overcrowding in the elementary schools is the No. 1 issue. Right now we are using 66 portables. For a school district like Peninsula, which is a terrific school system, to have that kind of unhoused students is really unheard of. We have the shortage of classrooms, and also the aging facilities.

Basically, all of the schools are eligible for a modification replacement, but we need to start somewhere. If we tried to cover everything, we’d have a huge bond issue that no one would support. We priced with a tight focus and for the easiest one for anyone to understand in the community — the elementary schools are jammed.

Q: How much will taxes go up to pay for these projects?

A: The cost of this bond issue is estimated at 79 cents per $1,000 of taxable value of a home. If you have a $400,000 house, it would cost you around $26 a month.

With the McCleary funding settlement, the levy and operations would drop. Even with the passage of the bond issue adding to the local taxes, total taxes for schools would be lower than they are right now in 2018. In 2018, the levy and bond total $2.32 cents per thousand. After the bond issue passes it will be $2.29 per thousand.

Q: What’s the biggest difference between the last bond which failed and this one?

A: The first thing that’s different is a different focus. Our most dramatic need is the elementary school overcrowding. The second difference is that this is more urgent. We now have waited another year. Every year we wait, each elementary school gets $2 or $3 million more expensive to build.

Thirdly is the issue will never get better. The enrollment this year is the largest kindergarten class in 25 years. Just finding rooms for the new classes when they enter, it’s getting worst and worst and worst.

Last time the bond was $220 million. This time it’s $198 million, about 10 percent less.

Q: If the bond fails again, what actions would you recommend the school board take next?

A: I included in the reasoning for running a February election that if absolutely necessary, we can run an April election to rerun it. The need just will not go away. It’s not one where if we wait a year, it will be cheaper.

There isn’t any solution out there other than the community saying, ‘Let’s get started on the overcrowding.’ The only option for us is to turn around and do it again.

Q: Is the board or the district lobbying the Legislature to change the super-majority requirement for passing the bond?

A: The Washington State School Directors Association has a standing position for years to lower the super-majority and enable passage with a simple majority.

The school district has had six consecutive failures, and the last failure in April was by a couple hundred votes. The irony of saying it failed by a couple hundred votes is there was a large plurality. Any official this last November running for office would have been elected in a landslide by the number of votes cast for the bond issue.

But because it didn’t hit the 60 percent level, it failed. You have more people voting yes than no, and it’s still failing. The super-majority absolutely needs to be changed.

Q: Can you elaborate more on the need for new schools and overcrowding?

A: We don’t have any more places for portables. The solution for last few years has been if we have more kids, we’ll buy more portables. We are now out of space. There will be no place to put a teacher and kids.

The next piece is that solving the problem by adding portables doesn’t add anything to the core space of the elementary schools, those being the eating spaces, restrooms, hallways, gathering spots, hallways.

I think the number that speaks for itself is having one-third of our classrooms in portables. It’s a failure of the community and the school district. We need to have a starting place. We need to add more classrooms. We need to have new schools.

Q: Even if the bond passes, how will overcrowding be dealt with next school year?

A: It’s already on the table in the sense that we know that in the fall of 2019 we need at least seven new classrooms. At the elementary schools it could be 10. Even with the passage of the bond in February we are seven classrooms short.

So what we need to do is a pyramid of interventions. The top will be the easiest solution, although they are not that easy. It would be cannibalizing the rooms we have right now.

If there’s a room being used by a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teacher that isn’t a regular elementary school classroom, we have to take that away and repurpose it for a regular classroom. We’ll take out specialists and put them on wheels and move them from classroom to classroom without a home.

That’s painful enough, but it’s the easiest of the solutions. As you start moving down the pyramid it gets tougher and tougher.

We’d have to relocate programs and take them out of schools, or suspend them. Things like early childhood programs aren’t mandatory, so if necessary, we’d use the portables for early childhood classrooms. I’d then need to figure out if I can find other housing for the program, or suspend it.

The next tier of taking whole programs and moving them or suspending them is tougher. We’d maybe take the gymnasium and divide them into classrooms.

If you get to the bottom of the pyramid, probably the most dramatic and that hits families the hardest is double shifting. Some kids would go at 5 in the morning and others would go at around 2 in the afternoon. You use the facility twice.

That’s not just an inconvenience, it’s the most dramatic impact you could have on parents and kids and the community.