The $69.6 million proposal to overhaul Walla Walla High School was not approved Tuesday, but Wa-Hi’s facility problems are not gone — and will only grow worse over time.
The School Board has no choice but to put another proposal before the voters.
But the Board must make many tough decisions before making another run at renovating Wa-Hi or any other school facility.
Although voters did not fully embrace the Wa-Hi proposal for a variety of reasons, the most consistent objection that bubbled to the top of most conversations was a belief the project was too large and the price tag too high in today’s uncertain economy. In addition, looming questions regarding what impact College Place High School will have on Wa-Hi’s enrollment and its facilities haunted the proposal.
Walla Walla School District officials were confident they had done a solid job of getting the pulse of the community before moving forward with the bond request. In hindsight, it seems a communication gap exists between school officials and voters. The bond measure was approved by 53.3 percent of voters, falling short of the 60 percent supermajority needed for approval.
School Board members and community supporters of overhauling Wa-Hi must work even harder to get a realistic, unvarnished read of the public’s feelings. This means reaching out to those who have been critics of the Wa-Hi project (or the school district in general). Public meetings need to be run in a way that make it clear it’s OK — even encouraged — to offer differing opinions and approaches. Nobody should feel uncomfortable offering their opinions.
School officials need to hear a wide variety of views, including many things they won’t necessarily like to craft a Wa-Hi proposal that will win approval.
This isn’t the first time a bond proposal has been a tough sell in Walla Walla.
The effort to build a new Green Park Elementary School was shot down by voters three times before it was finally approved in 1991 — with whopping 80 percent support. The bond was finally approved when the community came to a consensus over nearly a decade of debate and bond elections that a new Green Park should be built. It had to look like the old school and it had to be at the right price.
The School Board has concluded — and we believe correctly — the community wants a new, modern Wa-Hi that has the same look and feel of Wa-Hi’s open campus. That’s a place to start.
Where this project might have veered off track is in its size and cost.
Perhaps voters would prefer to rebuild and modernize Wa-Hi a few buildings at a time. Or it could be some voters feel strongly that some buildings at Wa-Hi are desperately in need of a makeover — the science building for example — while other areas should not be touched.
To build a community consensus, the Board must seek public comment from a wide spectrum of voters willing to offer honest views.