A ballot measure to fund the Peninsula School District will appear on the April 24 election after the board of directors voted 4-1 in favor during the Dec. 14 school board meeting.
In the audience were parents, teachers and interested community members — some even standing in the halls — ready to voice their opinion about underfunded classes, overcrowded spaces, failing facilities and more. Many in attendance were members of the local grassroots group Stand Up for Peninsula Schools, or SUP.
“I am embarrassed and ashamed of the facilities in our district,” Pierce County Councilman Derek Young said to the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. “It does not reflect what is great about our community. It is a difficult decision ... however, I can tell you that you have a number of community members that have your back, including me.”
Delanie Oakes, a second grade teacher from Artondale Elementary, gave an emotional plea for the bond, stating water damage in the school is being investigated for links to sick students and teachers.
“I am sure you are aware of Artondale’s ghost that haunt the health of many. I am talking about the water damage,” Oakes said. “On a good day, one would see cracks in walls and the timeline of a fissure started by a earthquake in 2001. A split cinder block foundation, brown ceiling tiles and floors so uneven it makes one disoriented. On a rainy day though, one would see multiple large buckets on towels catching a rainy mess, splashing staff and students, one might see water running down on the water creating bubbles in paint. (The) roof has been replaced and brown tiles are replaced until new ones become brown. Buckets are no longer needed, but just this week a tarp was placed on another part of the roof. Band-Aids won’t fix this.”
About 20 other parents, teachers and residents spoke up in support of the bond and asked the board to come together as a united front to help pass the measure.
A little less than under one year ago, a group of school staff, parents and community leaders were brought together by the district to create a facilities planning committee. The committee’s job was to find what needed to be fixed and updated within the district.
Over the year the group toured buildings, talked to contractors, assessed data and realized that the Peninsula School District needed more than $600 million for repairs, updates and more. Just over $95 million of those estimated costs would go toward preventative maintenance, which includes:
▪ Upgrades to interior and exterior finishes
▪ Health, safety and security upgrades
▪ Mechanical and electrical improvements
▪ Upgrades in technology and infrastructure
▪ Provide improvements that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act
▪ Expanding cafeteria and commons areas
▪ Site improvements such as fire suppression measures
▪ New roofs, paint and HVAC systems
“Many of our HVAC and fire systems were grandfathered in,” Superintendent Rob Manahan said. “We haven’t had a chance yet in this district to really play catch-up and to keep our facilities continuously up to date. It would take six years to become fully preventative. We want to start being preventative, not reactive to our problems.”
While the district boasts rising graduation rates, top-tier teachers and classes that have attracted more young families to the area, the facilities are subpar. During the meeting, school principals gave a yearly report about grade levels and test scores, and many principals sited challenges such as overcrowded classrooms, lack of space for science classes and gymnasiums filled with too many activities.
“We are a successful district when it comes to graduation rates,” board member and SUP co-founder Deborah Krishnadasan said. “Our teachers and students go above and beyond. But the facilities are affecting our students’ daily lives.”
The lackluster facilities affect how teachers are able to do their jobs, which puts the district at risk of losing quality teachers.
“We had a teacher who just denied renewing her contract,” Manahan said. “She was a great teacher. She moved here from California because she heard about our great district. But she came to teach STEM and she can’t do that on a mobile cart.”
The district does not want to lose regular, full-time teachers because of facilities, especially while trying to find a solution to the shortage of substitute teachers in the area.
Among the $600 million in needs, teachers and parents are hoping for new classrooms, more parking and possibly a whole new elementary school.
The district has seen a burst of growth in elementary school-age children within the last two years, Manahan said.
In the 2015-16 school year, the district gained 150 new kindergarteners, and in the 2016-17 school year another 150 kindergarteners joined the ranks. Some students are using portable classrooms to deal with overcrowding and lack of space, but not all of the portables have amenities such as bathrooms. High school theaters and science labs are being used for general education courses as well.
Manahan said school board members came to a decision on Dec. 4 to support a bond. On Dec. 14, all but one board member voted to have the bond placed on the April 24 ballot. David Olson voted against the motion, stating he was not ready to make a decision about election timing during the meeting. Krishnadasan amended the motion stating the board needed to talk with a financial advisor and come up with an official bond amount by the beginning of January.
The board will meet again to come up with an official bond amount on Jan. 4. The district must submit a bond ballot measure to the Pierce County Election Office by the end of February.
Bonds and levies are not a popular topic within the Peninsula School District. The district has attempted to pass a bond or a combination of the two in 2007, 2011 and 2014, but all failed. The most recent bond that passed was in 2003, 15 years ago, and will be paid off by the district in early 2019. Because of the lack of bond and levy measures, grassroots campaign members believe the school district has not been able to serve the community to its fullest extent.
The current tax rate for Pierce County residents living in the 120-square-mile district is $245 per $100,000 taxable home value. This includes $36 per $100,000 taxable home value for the bond that was passed in 2003 and $209 per $100,000 taxable home value for the current maintenance and operations levy. With April just four months away, some may worry there is not enough time to campaign and sway voters who always oppose a tax hike. For a bond measure to pass in Pierce County, a supermajority of 60 percent is needed.
Krishnadasan believes SUP, which started as an organization called Citizens for Peninsula Schools, has been doing the work to drive up community support in the past year.
“We want to support bond and levy measures that help support our schools,” she said. “We have been trying to rally and educate community members of the harbor. We have spent the last year with the goal to educate and campaign.”
Both Manahan and Krishnadasan said although bond measures in the past cast a shadow on the election, new families joining the district will make a difference and hopefully more people will be willing to see the real need to fix the current facilities.
Manahan has experience with bonds and levies within his career. He helped a $6.5 million capital levy pass in the Lake Stevens School District while he was superintendent and he has helped pass substantial bonds in nearby Washington districts. One thing he wants to make clear is that if the bond does pass — at whatever the settled upon amount will be — it does not mean that taxes will change right away. The district has the authority to choose when to sell the bonds and to start receiving the money necessary to make changes.
“A lot of that depends on the tax impact on the community and when the flow of money needs to come in,” the superintendent said. “So if we do a $200 million bond we may sell $50 million every year for four years. So it depends on when we need the money.”
If one is to base how the campaign might go based on the energy in the room during the Dec. 14 meeting, there is hope that community members will vote yes at the polls.
“We have three children in the Peninsula School District,” said Jenny Hampton, a youth basketball coach who got choked up while speaking to the audience about her experience with the district. “Our facilities are in an alarming state of disrepair. The district is operating on borrowed time. My children have never spent a year in the district where it wasn’t overcrowded. They have spent almost every year in a portable. There is moments in life where decisions matter — It’s our responsibility to capitalize on these moments.
“We must do everything to pass this bond right now.”