Lake Washington District asks voters for $755 million
January 21, 2014
New: Jan. 21, 3:48 p.m.
Kerri Nielsen wants Lake Washington School District voters to agree to go in debt by more than three-quarters of a billion dollars.
Lake Washington officials are staring at a projected 4,000 new students over the next eight years. With many schools currently at or over capacity, and since they need to find a seat for each and every one of those potential students, the district is proposing selling $755 million worth of bonds to finance a district-wide construction bonanza.
“Yes, it is a large amount of money,” Nielsen said. “But where else do we put 4,000 more kids?”
But there are some in the district who oppose the bond sale, saying it’s inefficient and won’t help move students out of portables.
The bonds would be sold to finance construction and major renovations of schools across the district over the next eight years, but the debt would be around longer.
The bond would add about 53 cents per $1,000 to property taxes for the next 20 years, according to district calculations. For the owner of a $500,000 home, that means an increase of $265 per year.
If approved, the bond might just be the largest in state history. In data from the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction going back to 2008 (the oldest available), the next highest amount is a $545 million bond floated by Bellevue in 2008. The next closest after that is $500 million in Tacoma last year. Nothing else comes close.
The bond would fund replacements, renovations, additions and construction of new schools across the district. In Sammamish, it would pay for the replacement of Margaret Mead Elementary School, an addition at Eastlake High School, and the construction of an internationally-focused magnet high school on district-owned land in front of Eastside Catholic School along 228th Avenue.
Across the rest of the district, it would pay to build two new elementary schools in Redmond, one in Kirkland and one new middle school. It would fund additions at Lake Washington High School and create a science- and technology-focused magnet high school on the west side of the district.
It would also replace Juanita High School, Kamiakan Middle School and Kirk Elementary School in Kirkland; and Evergreen Middle School and Rockwell Elementary School in Redmond.
Those opposed to the bond generally say it should focus on renovations instead on replacements.
Susan Wilkins, of Redmond, acknowledges the current buildings could use a facelift, but asserts that tearing them down and rebuilding new buildings is an inefficient use of funds.
“They are all really nice, well-built schools. Spending nearly $400 million for more modernization is just too much,” she wrote in an email.
Instead, she and Paul Hall, who is also opposed to the bond, say the schools could be renovated for a fraction of the cost.
This would allow the district to spread its money further, and help to reduce overcrowding and reliance on portables.
School officials disagree. In a letter to the Kirkland City Council, Lake Washington Superintendent Traci Pierce wrote that the rebuilds are necessary. The buildings in question are old and do not reflect modern design standards, she said.
For example, the amount of square footage per student has gone up since construction, even though state standards may not reflect this.
She also points to things like schools with breezeways instead of indoor hallways as reasons needed for the complete replacement of a school instead of a renovation.
While everyone loves to hate portables, Nielsen points out that they are simply likely to be part of schools as long as there is growth.
If, for example, a school is over capacity by 15 or 20 students – and other nearby schools are also at capacity – it would be a waste of money for the district to build a whole new school, she said.
Instead, Nielsen said, the district must wait until a new school would be nearly at capacity, otherwise they’ve overbuilt and wasted money by having empty classrooms.
Nielsen also notes that a 2010 bond issue for $234 million failed. When that happened, the district had to scramble to find places for the students.
“It’s been, ‘Let’s stick a Band-Aid here, let’s stick a Band-Aid here,” Nielsen said.
The backlog of projects from that bond proposal is likely responsible for some of the cost of this one, she said.
“It really is a lot like deferred maintenance on a home,” she said. “It definitely becomes more costly in the long run.”
Nielsen, a real estate broker, also makes the argument that newer schools help everyone maintain property values. She said older schools make potential homebuyers think twice, if not leave an area completely.
As a result, she said, newer schools help everyone, even if they don’t have children in the schools.
“This is what we want for our community,” she said. “This is what we want for our kids.”
Levies also on the ballot
While the proposed Lake Washington School District bond measure is easily the biggest choice on the ballot, there will also be a pair of proposed levies.
The two levies are to replace existing levies that will expire at year’s end. Each levy would last for four years. Taken together, they would represent a net increase of 28 cents per $1,000 dollars of assessed value above the current levies.
For the owner of a $500,000 home, that amounts to a $140-per-year year tax hike.
As district voters have likely become accustomed to, these levies support a wide array of school programs and fund more than 20 percent of the district’s day-to-day spending.
“I’m still just amazed that more money does not come from the state,” said Kerri Nielsen, a member of the committee supporting the levies.
There is no organized opposition to the levies.
The first levy is a standard educational program and operation levy. This levy funds basic school district operations, including things like teacher salaries and other day-to-day expenses.
The levy is used to make up the difference between the amount of money the state gives the district and the amount it actually costs the district to operate.
The existing levy costs property owners $1.78 per $1,000, and the replacement would increase that to $1.85.
A proposed $41.6 million levy for facilities and technology, replacing two existing levies, will cost 91 cents per $1,000, a 21-cent increase from the existing levies.
This levy would fund a number of capital projects, generally major renovations. Some include behind-the-scenes projects, like working on fire alarms, ventilation and hot-water systems. The district would spend $21.2 million on these projects.
Another part of this levy would spend $4.8 million on upgrading playfields and athletic facilities. It also includes $9.3 million for adding and replacing portable classrooms, and another $6.3 million to bring buildings up to code, improve traffic flow and install identification card systems for entrances at all sites.
The rest of the levy is for technology. It calls for $85.6 million to fund replacements of aging computer systems and computer networks, and replace classroom computers and other classroom technology. It would also fund the purchase of instructional software, business and technology systems, and additional staff training.