Peninsula schools float two funding measures

The Peninsula School District has two measures on the Aug. 5 ballot that are something of a Choose Your Own Adventure for voters.

Proposition No. 1 is a $60 million general obligation bond, and Proposition No. 2 is a $55.9 million capital projects and technology levy.

Voters will decide the propositions individually, but their fates are still tied. If both pass, the levy shrinks to just $2 million, giving the district a total of $62 million to spend.

Superintendent Chuck Cuzzetto said the propositions aim to answer overcrowding at elementary schools and pay for updating at Key Peninsula Middle School.

Citizens for Peninsula Schools, a campaign in favor of the propositions, is urging district residents to “vote yes twice” to revitalize the schools.

Opponents say that raising taxes should be the last option, not the first.

Absent a double defeat, the election will result in one of three scenarios. Each would deliver a different outcome for district upgrades and residents’ property tax bills.

Scenario 1: Only the bond passes

Proposition 1 is a 20-year bond issue that needs a 60 percent majority to pass.

The bonds would cover building a new elementary school, tearing down and replacing Artondale Elementary School, upgrading and strengthening security throughout the district, replacing playfields, modernizing Key Peninsula Middle School and upgrading middle school science rooms.

The proposal is a response to the failure of a $50 million levy in 2013, said Leslie Harbaugh, a member of the Citizens for Peninsula Schools campaign and Gig Harbor resident.

Critics of that levy had charged that the accompanying tax rate would have been too high. They called for a rate of under a dollar, which the current bond proposal meets.

If passed, communities within the Peninsula School District boundaries would have an increased property tax of .92 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value and the owner of a $300,000 house would pay an additional $276 in property taxes per year.

District officials say the money is needed to answer rapid growth at the north end of Gig Harbor that has caused crowded classrooms at elementary schools. For example, Purdy Elementary was built for 578 students but had 689 students attending in the 2013-2014 academic year.

The district also is preparing for further expansion with 1,400 new homes under development in the area, Cuzzetto said. A committee is working to redraw the lines for neighborhood schools in an effort to relieve some of the overcrowding, he said.

Jerry Gibbs, a member of the Citizens for Responsible School Spending campaign, said he agrees that additional space is needed for the students, but that the district should first seek to redistribute students.

“Redistricting is the best solution to overcrowding, and it should be finished before voters decide to build a new school,” he said.

District officials say the extra classrooms are needed and that Artondale is in need of replacement. The school was built in 1959 and has received four additions, a modernization and a deep cleaning in 2001 due to poor ventilation causing illness in students and teachers, according to district reports.

Upgrades for security are another priority and include buzzer systems, key cards and cameras that would allow for limited access into the school, Cuzzetto said.

“Our schools were originally built to be welcoming, not keep people out, but times have changed,” he said.

The $1 million updates won’t be enough to secure every building in the district, but it’s a starting point, he said.

Randy Boss, who wrote the opposition statement for the Pierce County voter pamphlet, said he thinks the $25 million Artondale rebuild is unnecessary and that the district should solve the school’s problems through renovations.

“If you look as a voter, it appears to me that the School Board is doing everything they can to expose the bad things in the district to outrage the voters and pass the bond,” he said.

Boss also said the district should use its current budget money to upgrade security.

Cuzzetto said the school has a security budget and is using it to pay for security guards within the schools.

The district would use other bond proceeds to to replace 10-year-old artificial playfields at Peninsula High School, Gig Harbor High School and Harbor Ridge Middle School, and to update science labs at its four middle schools.

Key Peninsula Middle School would also get upgrades, ranging from cosmetic fixes such as paint and flooring to major work on heating and fire suppression systems.

Currently, the school’s water system draws from a nearby pond to put out fires. The district wants to replace it with a water tower or water line, Cuzzetto said.

Scenario 2: Only the levy passes

Proposition 2 closely resembles Prop. 1 with a few key differences.

The $55.9 million levy would raise property tax rates $1.19 per $1,000 of assessed value for 5 years. A homeowner with a $300,000 house would pay an additional $357 a year.

Like Prop. 1, the levy would buy a new school, replacement of Artondale, upgrades for playfields and school security. It also would provide $2 million to put more computers in classrooms.

What it wouldn’t do is make any upgrades to Key Peninsula Middle School beyond the new fire suppression system.

Levy opponents say taxpayers, especially older residents, can’t afford to shoulder additional costs. A big concern is keeping property taxes low to allow the housing market to remain competitive, said Gibbs of Citizens for Responsible School Spending.

“Before we levy new taxes on anything for anyone, we need to make sure that every penny is being spent wisely,” he said. “People are hurting, and we speak for them.”

Leslie Harbaugh, member of the Citizens for Peninsula Schools campaign, said revitalizing the district is a worthwhile investment for the entire community, even if some people don’t have children enrolled in the schools.

“Strong schools equals a strong community, and people who chose to purchase homes here in our area see if we invest in our schools,” she said. “That affects property values.”

Scenario 3: Both propositions pass

District officials patterned Prop. 2 after Prop. 1 on the premise that voters might decide to pass only one measure. If a levy proves more palatable, the district would still be able to finance most of the projects on its want list.

But that’s the not ideal outcome, according to Cuzzetto. District leaders prefer to use long-term bond debt to build schools and to pay cash from levy proceeds for short-lived purchases such as computers.

That’s why the propositions were designed to pass together. If that happens, Prop. 1 would pay for its original $60 million list of projects. Meanwhile, Prop. 2 would be reduced to $2 million to cover only the technology portion of the levy proposal.

Under that scenario, property taxes for 2015 would increase by $.96 per $1,000 of assessed value and the owner of a $300,000 house would pay an additional $288 in property taxes.

Supporters argue that the ballot items are worth the price tag.

“We were all students once, and I suspect more of us attended public schools as opposed to private,” Harbaugh said. “Public schools provide education for those who can’t afford to go to private schools, and I think its a worthwhile investment of the community’s future.”