WALLA WALLA — Dozens of community members turned out for a public meeting Tuesday to discuss the recently failed bond to renovate Walla Walla High School. More than 60 residents showed up for the meeting, hosted by members of the Walla Walla School Board and Walla Walla Public Schools Superintendent Mick Miller.
School leaders heard many views and suggestions on why the bond failed to reach the needed 60 percent approval during the Feb. 12 special election. A consistent theme of the discussion was that the $69.6 million project was too big. People, particularly those living on fixed incomes, also expressed feeling taxed out. Others said the district could have better publicized or marketed the campaign. And some concerns were raised about a general distrust of the School Board among the voting community.
The district held the meeting the same day election results were certified, showing just over 53 percent of voters supported the $48 million local share of the Wa-Hi proposal.
“We’re here today to listen,” Miller said. “We did something that didn’t resonate with the community enough. We need to go back and find out why that is.”
Dean Lodmell said he had reviewed early options for the high school project when it was still being developed. Some of the dozen options the board reviewed were smaller projects spread over time, more moderate proposals, and some that were even higher in price than the one eventually selected.
“I’m saying, go back. Look at those options,” Lodmell said. “Only look at what you need and what you can live with. Don’t go and look at what you want. And I think you can come in with a halfway decent number.”
Lodmell, as well as others who had reviewed the proposal, also said the district needed to be more specific about close to $20 million in project development costs, or soft costs, in the proposal. Those account for items such as new classroom equipment, desks, chairs and computers, and general items such as landscaping that were not itemized.
When asked what he felt were the most pressing needs at Wa-Hi, Miller said he would put the science facilities first, the HVAC systems next, and third would probably be the track. Wa-Hi’s cinder track is unusable when wet and cannot be used for competitions because of insurance problems. Most attendees agreed that the science facilities, overall technology and track needed to be improved.
Voter apathy came up as a theme, and ways were suggested to reach registered voters who didn’t turn out. A few voters said there is still lingering distrust about the School Board’s past decisions to use excess funds for other district needs.
Others said it wasn’t simply the size of the project, but the way it was promoted that hurt the campaign.
A Wa-Hi student who voted for the first time in February said students achieve great things with what they have. It is possible to learn at Wa-Hi. But he hinted at what could be accomplished with better equipment, particularly in science and technology.
“Wa-Hi students are doing great things with what they have,” Kelsey Gabel said. “My top priority would definitely be the technology and the science.”
Gabel said he was also moved by retired adults at the meeting speaking about living on fixed incomes.
“I think it was probably a little bit too expensive and not enough advertising,” he said about the bond.
Several people spoke in defense of the School Board and its hard work, and said the project seemed sound but lacked better promotion and came on too suddenly. A general feeling was expressed by those who voted no that because of its size, the bond was going to become a financial hardship when property taxes rise. And others voiced concern about not knowing when the next district facility need would pop up.
“People in Walla Walla are tired of we need this, we need that,” one man said. “You asked for too much too soon. Way too much too soon.”