District officials in quandary over Wa-Hi

They’re at a loss for a renovation measure they think voters would accept.

With a range of issues facing the School District and residents, the question for the public is which project is most important to possibly pass a bond? Or, in other words, “Where do you want your money to go?”

With a range of issues facing the School District and residents, the question for the public is which project is most important to possibly pass a bond? Or, in other words, “Where do you want your money to go?” Photo by Matthew Zimmerman Banderas.

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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 benwentz@wwub.com or 526-8315.

Comments

schuelaw 5 months ago

Another issue that's dragging on a bond election is the uncertainty surrounding the new College Place high school. I haven't heard any discussion of what our facilities needs will be when that school comes on line. Seems to me that a lot of the space needs (e.g. practice rooms for music students) suddenly become much less pressing when there are 400 or so fewer students on campus. There may be a whole host of effects of the CP school that we're not properly assessing vis a vis the bond. So as not to be seen as automatically downplaying the need for a bond, it may be, for example, that suddenly there are even more dire facilities needs.

The new CP school is a big variable in this equation that has yet to be discussed (at least in the paper where I get most of my information on this issue).

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fatherof5 5 months ago

Schuelaw, you are correct that the U-B hasn't covered the CP impact to Wa-Hi much. Over the next four years roughly 300-350 students are expected to move to the new CP HS, leaving roughly 1,500 at Wa-Hi. Currently, those 300-350 CP-bound students at Wa-Ha are housed in 16 portables that were originally meant to be temporary. After a Wa-Hi remodel, the idea is to be done with the portables and move all students into the main buildings, which can't be done currently.

While this will sound counter-intuitive on its surface, having a large Wa-Hi of 1,500 students (as opposed to a very large Wa-Hi of 1,850 students) doesn't really change anything about the Wa-Hi needs. Here's why:

After the CP students leave....

*The single-paned windows will stay single-paned

*The classrooms will still lack modern climate controls and be undersized (class population sizes will remain at 30+ students because state funding will be reduced for Wa-Hi when the CP students leave)

*The track will still be unusable and uninsurable

*The drama classes will still have no classrooms or storage capacity for sets and costumes

*The library will still remain in the 20th century

*The bus and car traffic patterns will still remain hazardous and the parking poorly designed

*The science rooms still won't have proper space or ventilation for labs

*The "fitness center" - if you can call it that - will still be housed in an over-sized rail car

And so on...

The reality is that at 1,500 students or 1,800 students, Wa-Hi is a 50 year-old series of buildings that have never been remodeled. The purpose of a remodel would be to improve educational opportunities, efficiencies and safety. It is not to expand. None of this changes when CP opens their new high school.

I hope that is helpful.

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PearlY 4 months, 3 weeks ago

fatherof5, can you point me to any online resources concerning the District's projections of future enrollment and overall future financial plan, particularly with respect to capital projects? I'm talking about not just the next 2-5 years but say in the 10-year + range. I'd like to become more knowledgeable about this issue and you're obviously well informed on it.

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fatherof5 4 months, 3 weeks ago

PearlY, based on the presentations I heard last year where this question was asked, my understanding is that the long-range estimate for future enrollment is quite stagnant. They expect very little or no growth. The bonds are for improving structures, not expanding them. I don't know if or where that might be found online.

As for capital projects, I would contact the district to get in touch with someone on the Facilities Committee. They could explain what they have studied better than I could. I know the Board is considering now how to approach the needs at Wa-Hi, while recognizing that Lincoln and a few other schools have their own needs. It's pretty clear that Wa-Hi has the greatest sense of urgency, but the long-term capital projects list of goals that everyone would like to see got a bit muddier when the Wa-Hi bond failed. That's my sense of it, anyway.

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Jo99362 5 months ago

Too bad there isn't a way to create individual bond line items for the ballot and those that pass gets fixed. This article didn't even address Lincoln's need for a completely new school that has been tossed around as well, for a HS that has the most neediest students and the school district ignored for years by not providing counselors, social workers, or any other support systems. Now Lincoln is a place that students want to attend because the staff cares.

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fatherof5 5 months ago

I'm trying to think how this article could have spun last night's meeting more negatively...and I'm drawing a blank. Officials are "in a quandary" and "at a loss"?

Posing questions and looking for input is a healthy part of a process. It is not, as this article's tone seems to imply, a desperate cry for some semblance of guidance in a time of chaos and despair.

Of the two dozen people in attendance, various ideas and suggestions were put forward, but there were no major disagreements. No one was despondent. No one spoke in opposition to fixing Wa-Hi. It was a brainstorming session about how to do it, when to do it, and what "it" should be. It wasn't intended as a meeting for decisions to be made, as the district is still hoping to hear from more people in the community and from more staff members. It was a listening session with more listening to come.

Some key questions asked were:

1) When should the next Wa-Hi bond be put up for a vote? (February, April, August, November, or February of 2015?)

2) What should the bond look like? (One big comprehensive bond? (no one proposed this) Two half-sized bonds done in phases? One semi-large bond soon and we'll see if there is a way to address the other needs sometime in the future?

3) What does the community want and what will it support? 53% voted yes in February to the big bond, but that's not enough. 81% in surveys support some level of a remodel. Many of those supported a phased approach. What more can and should the district do to find out what will best address the needs of Wa-Hi and the needs of the community?

4) How and when do the needs at Lincoln and Pi-Hi get addressed?

5) Now that we've missed the golden opportunity for historically low interest rates on the last bond -- which would have been an incredible financing deal for taxpayers -- how does the district approach the PR for a new bond where whatever money is spent won't go as far as it would have otherwise?

All of this isn't a "quandary" any more than it is a "challenge" or an "opportunity." (Choose which word with which you wish to color your tone.) This is the reality that our community is facing straight on as it works through a deliberate and transparent decision-making process weighing the pros and cons of various options. Yes, these are big questions, but the mood in that room was more optimistic than pessimistic. You'd never guess it from reading this article.

I'd prefer the U-B would report the news without coloring it. The U-B article on the Oct. 22 meeting did the same thing.

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Chas 5 months ago

"The drama classes will still have no classrooms or storage capacity for sets and costumes"

The lack of these was known before the bond was passed and the building built. One only had to read and look at the informational flyers of that 1990s bond. These failures are in part why I lack trust of the district. Technology advances will probably make any new building inadequate within a short timeframe, the library and technology buildings being good examples.

I strongly support a new science building and Lincoln as the greatest priority due safety concerns and lab inadequacies.

Our secondary education model itself appears unsuited to the 21st century. That's another discussion for another time.

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schuelaw 5 months ago

I think there's a general lack of trust in gov't nowadays. I think it's partly because the media, in an effort to boost ad revenue, tends to focus on problems and controversy. For example, in a $10 million bond say $50K goes somewhere it shouldn't. Then all the focus is on that instead of on the 99.5% of the money that was spent correctly.

We live in a culture that is all to ready to let perfect get in the way of good enough.

I never agree with the bond 100%, but I do know that education is important and expensive, so I vote for the bond.

On the plus side, this is one of the most reasonable and civil discussions I've ever read on this site. Thanks again.

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fatherof5 5 months ago

Well said, schuelaw. Conflict drives ratings for today's media. Civility is sometimes hard to find.

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fatherof5 5 months ago

Chas, a science teacher at the board meeting made a similar point to yours that whatever is done needs to be done well and with foresight. I've seen enough of the current "potential" plans to believe there is a lot of thought and wisdom in the designs.

The auditorium was built before I moved here, but my understanding was that its shortfalls were due to a compromise to keep the costs down and that "some day" the drama issues could be addressed. You might remember that more accurately, but that's what I've been told.

I wouldn't call the auditorium a failure, though. While it could be a bit larger, it has served as a marvelous place to watch numerous plays, musicals and concerts...and it should continue to do so for decades to come. It just needs an addition for the music department with actual practice rooms, so that the drama department can inherit the current music rooms. That's what the last bond tried to do.

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Chas 4 months, 4 weeks ago

I’d liked the UB editorial this morning. I disagree. It brought to mind my earlier posting here, where my comments will be more germane.

Yes, schuelaw and fatherof5, many in this community have decades of memory of the school district and the construction of Wa-Hi fifty years ago. The current school board and superintendent are burdened by the poor choices their predecessors have done. You’re free to infer anything about the press and today’s media you like. Your replies to me, however, don’t correspond to anything I’d written.

I'd not called the auditorium a failure. I'd called its design inadequate from the beginning. I've recently read about building phased-projects. My comment above may indicate how well that's worked. Other remarks above, I'd read earlier this week, may require some fact-checking. Perhaps clarity of definitions?

"Wa-Hi is a 50 year-old series of buildings that have never been remodeled.“

How many walls must be knocked down and floor-plans changed? “Never” is incorrect with regards the north-wing of the Academic building and parts of the Commons.

The fitness center at Wa-Hi will be our third? I think so? Will this be the good money after the bad?

When I read these errors I don't know if they come from the district or hearsay? If they come from the district, then perhaps there's a reason the public lack trust.

That said, I support the bond.

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fatherof5 4 months, 4 weeks ago

Sorry if I misread your comments earlier, Chas. I thought "these failures" in your first comment were referring to the building of the auditorium in the early 1990s, which didn't include drama rooms. I've re-read that and am still unclear, but I apologize if I misinterpreted you.

My reference to the series of buildings having "never" been remodeled for 50 years was specifically regarding the classrooms in the Academic and Science buildings, which, as I have come to understand from various sources, remain pretty much as they were in 1963. In retrospect, "never" is a big word, so that comment was a less than adequate description on my part. I imagine the main office area must have been transformed at some point in more recent history to what it looks like now?

Also, I haven't heard about the other fitness center you mention. I only know about the current one in the metal shed (which is actually more of a weight room than a fitness center). Just curious...where was the other one? Did they used to lift weights in one of the other gyms before they put up the metal shed?

Two places we apparently agree is on supporting the bond and that the U-B's editorial suggests February would be too soon for the district to run another bond. I think more groundwork and discussion needs to take place. My sense is that the district thinks so too.

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Chas 4 months, 3 weeks ago

The auditorium was to have been updated as you report. That was two Bonds, Green Park and Sharpstein, and the new facilities building, past. Twenty years (?) since it was built. Those administrations, people, are long gone.

We in the building trades, familiar with the district, have repeatedly witnessed their failure to maintain the facilities. That has improved and I've greater confidence today.

We are largely in agreement faterof5, no apology necessary.

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