WALLA WALLA — How do you persuade a community to pass a bond that will accomplish less but likely cost the same or more than one voters had already shot down?
The Walla Walla School Board didn’t have an answer to that question Tuesday at a second public work session to discuss plans to renovate Walla Walla High School.
With about 20 faculty, administration and community members present, including all five board members, all were in agreement that something needed to be done, but there was no consensus as to what.
Superintendent Mick Miller, who has previously pushed for a bond election early next year, struck a more cautious tone in his opening statements.
“I just at this point haven’t felt a real groundswell of momentum toward moving quickly to an election,” Miller said. “In fact, I’ve been feeling quite the opposite.”
Walla Walla voters rejected a $48 million bond in February for the complete renovation of Wa-Hi. That project would have cost taxpayers 68 cents per $1,000 in additional property taxes, a relatively low amount due to historically low bond interest rates.
Since then rates have risen rapidly, and the district now estimates that a similar but cheaper full renovation would cost as much as $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
The district’s Community Facilities Task Force had been considering a phased plan, which would accomplish many of the same goals of the original bond but spread the costs out over two elections. In that plan, taxpayers would see their taxes rise by about 54 cents per $1,000 for the first phase.
But since the last work session held by the district on Oct. 22, little progress has been made toward a final plan. The facilities task force has not yet met again, and the district has given little indication it plans to move forward with a bond proposal for next February.
The worst thing, Miller said at Tuesdays meeting, would be to run another losing bond measure.
“I’m concerned about that,” Miller said. “You don’t want to get into the cycle of bond fail, bond fail, bond fail. That’s something that’s hard to get out of.”
Miller also said the board had to take into consideration an anti-government atmosphere nationally as well.
“If we run a bond on Feb. 11,” Miller said, “ballots would be mailed right as we were getting to the end of a government shutdown, or right in the middle of a government shutdown, so that concerns me too.”
Walla Walla Community College Vice President Jim Peterson said a bond for Wa-Hi should be passed, however, and that it should be sold as an investment in the future.
“The fact that has to drive this is that Wa-Hi needs to be updated and made modern. Period,” Peterson said
“Our students deserve it, our parents deserve it, our staff deserve it,” he continued. “This has got to happen for our community and our kids.”
New School Board member David Hampson proposed a more limited idea to renovate Wa-Hi in a single bond by focusing on just a science addition, renovations to the current science, academic and commons buildings, and a new administration facilities. He estimated his plan, which would leave out items such as parking improvements and soccer fields, would save 20-30 percent over a complete renovation.
His proposal piqued Miller’s interest, but Ted Cohan, the executive director of the district’s business office, said such a plan would be unlikely to pass an election.
“I just don’t see how that’s going to pass,” Cohan said. “If we come back to a bond that’s anywhere near 60 cents, I don’t think there’s any chance it’s going to pass.”
The board hasn’t set another work session to discuss plans to renovate Wa-Hi. It’s next regular meeting is next Tuesday.
The deadline to file for a February election is Dec. 27. The next election after that would be in April, with a march deadline to file a resolution.
Ben Wentz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8315.