Yes on Peninsula bond; students have waited too long already

Morning traffic flows on a roundabout near the Burnham Drive exit in Gig Harbor, a gateway to the north part of the city where there’s much new development but no elementary school.
Morning traffic flows on a roundabout near the Burnham Drive exit in Gig Harbor, a gateway to the north part of the city where there’s much new development but no elementary school. News Tribune file photo, 2006

How much concern is growth arousing on the peninsula? How anxious are residents about overcrowded schools, roads and roundabouts and inadequate infrastructure west of the Narrows Bridge?

Gig Harbor voters answered those questions decisively in November by electing a slate of slow-growth City Council candidates, including a new mayor. Those leaders, in turn, acted forcefully in February by adopting a six-month moratorium on residential development.

In a city that’s recently seen the second-largest percentage population boom in all of Puget Sound, the backlash isn’t surprising.

But trying to stop growth on the peninsula is as futile as stopping the tides churning through the Tacoma Narrows. And those who believe local schools have adequate resources to serve the families already here, let alone the ones yet to come, are mistaken.

The Gig Harbor North area is ground zero of the Peninsula School District’s facilities crisis. Every lot cleared, every home and apartment built and every new child waiting for a school bus in that part of town testifies to the community’s shortsightedness when it rejected a 2014 school bond-and-levy package.

The current wave of development also helps make the case why voters must approve the $220 million school bond on the April 24 ballot.

Once again, the top line item is construction of an elementary school in Gig Harbor North. In recent years educators have juggled students, tinkered with boundary lines and crammed 25 percent of the district’s elementary classes into portable classrooms at its eight existing grade schools.

Other projects in the bond package — including major upgrades of Artondale Elementary and Peninsula High and modernization of Key Peninsula Middle School, plus safety upgrades across the district — also have waited too long.

Bond opponents are circulating material claiming “there is a better way.” It’s really sleight of hand, conjuring a fantasy in which the district’s basic operating levy combined with a short-term capital levy magically fixes decades of neglect. What goes unsaid is that these same opponents helped defeat a capital levy four years ago.

The Legislature made things tough for bond boosters, too. Last year, it raised state property taxes to fund K-12 education while lowering what school districts can raise through local levies — a shift that eventually will ease the burden on many Washington taxpayers while increasing it in high-property-value areas like Seattle, Bellevue and Gig Harbor.

This year, legislators blunted the pain by approving a partial tax giveback, but it doesn’t kick in until 2019.

Peninsula officials, meantime, poorly timed this bond vote by holding it in April, after the painful 2018 tax notices arrived, rather than in February. Theirs is the only school measure in Pierce County going to voters this month.

Despite all the setbacks, this year’s bond campaign is energized by a planning team with more than 100 community members and a district superintendent who’s answered questions all over the peninsula.

The package is the right size; it’s limited to funding the highest priorities on the district’s $400-million building needs list. And it was designed as a straightforward single ballot measure, unlike the bond and levy two-pack that perplexed voters in 2014.

Voters should beware misinformation from both the pro and con campaigns. Some bond supporters would have you believe your taxes are going down; while emphasizing Gig Harbor’s low tax rates, they don’t mention the impact of the state property tax hike and the peninsula’s rising home values.

The truth, as Peninsula Superintendent Rob Manahan acknowledges, is that taxpayers are feeling squeezed right now, and owners of a home assessed at $400,000 would pay an extra $15 a month for the new bond after the old bond is retired next year.

This is a worthy sacrifice at a time when school maintenance problems are cascading, and systems are starting to fail.

Keep in mind that legislators recently froze Narrows Bridge tolls for at least the next four years, so the total hit on household budgets is less than it would have been.

Peninsula voters last approved a capital school bond in 2003, the only time they’ve said “yes” to one in the last 28 years.

Now’s the time to end the long drought of investment in schools, to confront growth proactively and to stand up for children.