Education

For Puyallup School Board candidates, it’s all about the bond

Fourth-graders stream out of portable classrooms at Zeiger Elementary in South Hill. The school holds classes and programs in 11 portable classrooms. If a proposed bond measure passes, Puyallup school officials estimate, the need for 100 of the district’s 122 portable elementary classrooms will be eliminated.
Fourth-graders stream out of portable classrooms at Zeiger Elementary in South Hill. The school holds classes and programs in 11 portable classrooms. If a proposed bond measure passes, Puyallup school officials estimate, the need for 100 of the district’s 122 portable elementary classrooms will be eliminated. Staff photographer

Puyallup has a longstanding reputation among families who say they choose to live there because of the quality of public schools. But for more than a decade, the Puyallup School District has been a loser at the ballot box; it hasn’t persuaded enough voters to pay more for school construction.

Four times voters have been asked to pass bond proposals, and four times voters have rejected them.

Now Puyallup educators are trying again, this time for a $292.5 million package, on the Nov. 3 ballot. It would pay for one new elementary school, on South Hill. Three other elementary schools — Firgrove, Northwood and Sunrise — would be replaced with larger buildings. And Pope Elementary would be enlarged.

“When we don’t pass a bond, it allows us to end up in a crisis, which is where we are now,” said Maddie Names, co-chairwoman of the bond campaign. “I don’t know how anyone can vote no.”

But the harsh reality is that Puyallup residents usually do vote no — or rather, not enough say yes to meet the 60 percent supermajority requirement. The last time they approved a school bond was in 2004. At the time, there were an estimated 20,000 students in the school district, according to state records.

Since then, the student population has grown by more than 10 percent to around 22,250. When the school year started in September, enrollment was up by about 400 over last year. And officials are bracing for even more growth as housing developments that were on hold during the recession spring to life. They expect to see another 1,600 students over the next five years, mostly in elementary schools.

For years, they have coped by adding portable classrooms. There are now 238 portables districtwide — 122 of them at elementary schools, where officials say the space crunch is most acute.

This year, Puyallup also initiated the first of several planned moves that will transfer sixth-graders out of crowded elementary schools to the district’s junior highs. Kids at Zeiger Elementary were the first to move, to Ballou Junior High. Even so, Zeiger still uses 11 portable classrooms.

District officials and school board members say Puyallup kids need a more permanent solution, which is why the board voted unanimously in April to go to voters one more time.

The new space would make room for an additional 2,720 students, accommodate full-day kindergarten and special education preschools, and give each of the five schools a dedicated science classroom. The new school, along with Firgrove and Northwood, would open in 2019, and the projects at Pope and Sunrise would be completed in 2020.

Board members took the unusual step of placing the bond proposal before voters in the November general election, rather than waiting for the traditional February special election for school measures. They say the needs grow more urgent each year.

“It is time for this district to catch up,” said board member Pat Jenkins, who has served on the school board since 2011 and is running again for the Position 3 seat in November. “This can be a tremendous investment in our community. People are finally starting to see the ramifications of overcrowding.”

His challenger, Michael Keaton, agrees that the district has gone too long without raising sufficient money for school construction. He calls the bond “absolutely necessary.”

But Keaton adds: “We need to take a hard look at how money is currently being spent and be 100 percent transparent in any future levy requests.”

“We need help,” said board member Dane Looker, who has served on the board for four years and is running again for the Position 2 seat. “There is no available classroom space in our elementary buildings, and without a successful bond campaign, no resources to alleviate overcrowding.”

At a recent candidate forum, Looker said that while he hopes to be re-elected, he’d be willing to trade all his votes for “yes” votes on the bond.

Derek Maynes, his opponent, agrees that Puyallup needs to keep up with growth. But he questions whether the district and bond campaigners have provided enough information on individual project costs. He said a detailed cost breakdown would increase voter confidence.

“My fear is that voters will look at the staggering amount (almost a third of a billion dollars), and vote ‘no’ due to lack of information,” Maynes said. “You have to be interested in this to figure it out. Most voters aren’t. They are only going to give it a couple minutes’ time.”

Officials recently updated bond information on the district website. The update includes total price tags for each of the five major projects in the bond.

Maynes isn’t the only one worried. Former Puyallup School Board member Cindy Poysnick cautioned board members after the most recent bond failure in 2013 that unless they work harder with community and civic groups, a bond won’t pass.

She said she supports the current package, but is afraid it will face defeat again.

Supporters point to several conditions that have changed in the past two years. The economy has improved, and housing prices are on the rise. That keeps the bond tax rate relatively low, compared with the 2013 request.

The district also plans to refinance $34 million of a six-year, $46 million capital levy approved by voters last year. Financing much of that cost over 21 years rather than six also helps to keep the rate increase modest.

“The price tag for this is crazy reasonable,” said Names, the bond campaign co-chairwoman. “The average homeowner would only pay $5 more per year.”

Veronica Smith is urging voters to reject the bond. She wrote the opposition statement for the county voters guide. Smith did not respond to emailed requests for further comment from The News Tribune.

In her voter guide statement, Smith says the bond request is “a whopping $292 million over 21 years. There is no telling what the board will ask for given a few more years.”

She says Puyallup citizens can’t afford more taxes, and urges the district to look to technology for innovative solutions to school crowding. She urges the school board to capitalize on “an educational program that has unlimited potential for learning, beyond brick and mortar walls.”

Bond supporters contend that, for now, bricks and mortar are still important.

Names has a fourth-grader at Carson Elementary, which was built for 750 students but now has more than 970. While Carson isn’t on the bond project list, the hope is that by increasing capacity elsewhere, some crowding at other district elementaries will ease.

Names is optimistic that this year’s campaign can accomplish what previous campaigns have not. She said the campaign is working on getting voters to register. Online registration has closed, but voters have until Oct. 26 to register in person.

“We are reaching out to families that don’t have kids yet, as well as the generation that isn’t thinking about students because that is behind them,” she said.

Read more online

Information about Puyallup School Board candidates and other South Sound election candidates can be found in the News Tribune Online Voter Guide at bit.ly/1HB9K9l.

Puyallup bond by the numbers

Bond amount: $292.5 million

Estimated tax rate per $1,000 of property valuation that the bond will add: 2 cents

Estimated additional annual cost on a home valued at $250,000: $5

Number of portable classrooms districtwide: 238

Number of portable classrooms in elementary schools: 122

Number of elementary portable classrooms that will be eliminated if the bond passes: 100

Source: Puyallup School District

Puyallup bond history

Date

Amount

Pass/Fail

% Yes Votes

May 2001

$89.9 million

Failed

50.59%

Feb. 2004

$198.5 million

Passed

60.73%

Feb. 2007

$259.5 million

Failed

58.08%

May 2007

$259.5 million

Failed

59.15%

March 2009

$257 million

Failed

48.07%

Feb. 2013

$279.6 million

Failed

55.49%

The district’s take

For more information on the Puyallup bond, go to the school district website at www.puyallup.k12.wa.us.

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