District: Wa-Hi needs must be balanced with what voters will approve

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One of the science classrooms is seen at Walla Walla High School.

WALLA WALLA — To those who are concerned about high tax bills, Mick Miller says he gets it.

Failure of February’s $48 million bond issue to modernize the 50-year-old Walla Walla High School hit the school district superintendent hard.

“I will remember it as the year the bond failed. Emotionally it’s a killer,” he said in an interview.

But it’s clear from recent opinion surveys that any future proposal cannot look and cost the same and have any chance at passing muster with voters.

“We need (renovation) to happen so we have to do something different. It will not be exactly like it was last time,” Miller said.

Options under consideration include redesigning what would amount to complete modernization, but on a more affordable scale, or spreading out the work in phases — building by building — that would be dependent upon successive, successful bond elections.

“We have to reduce the cost,” he said. “The foolish part for us would be to present the same project and the same design.”

Had the measure passed, property tax owners would have paid an additional 68 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Evidenced from the survey results, Miller conceded, “There were people who voted for (the bond) but preferred to pay less.”

The district currently is reviewing options for a new proposal. A community facilities advisory committee started meeting recently, the School Board will soon discuss survey results in a work session, eventually will receive recommendations and public input, and ultimately place another bond measure before voters.

Board President Anne Golden predicts the board will meet, meet again and keep meeting during the next few months until there’s a consensus on what to propose and support.

“We want to make it so it passes,” she said.

The earliest election would be February. Another opportunity will arise in April.

“At some point, voters are going to vote to modernize,” as Miller put it. And officials want that point to come as early as possible.

After all, preparing for and placing bond measures on ballots are expensive.

February’s election cost district taxpayers $21,750 in direct expenses, which were paid to the county. The district also will be billed another $6,000 or so at the end of the year for indirect costs.

In addition, the district has paid about $70,000 in architectural fees in preparation for Wa-Hi modernization.

Miller said that looking ahead to the next proposal, construction contingency amounts and anticipated project development costs likely will be trimmed, and less elaborate methods of expanding classroom areas can be explored.

Also, the board will discuss the possibility of phasing in improvements, such as modernizing the science, academic, commons, library and other buildings one-by-one or grouped in stages, which the poll results show voters could look favorably upon.

It’s not Miller’s first choice. Having experienced school improvement projects before arriving in Walla Walla, he’s aware of the serious disruptions construction can cause and performing work end-over-end would take years or decades.

Also, “For the taxpayer, to do the whole project, it’s less expensive” and assures a single primary contractor would oversee all the work for continuity, he said.

Miller interpreted two district citizen committees’ recommendations of “phasing in” work at Wa-Hi as going from building-to-building with funding from a single bond issue. That’s why he recommended the all-in-one approach after he arrived in the district in July 2010.

“I had the notion, let’s give it a shot.

“But just because (a project in stages) is problematic doesn’t mean that’s not what will come to be.”

Although the summer surveys revealed the vast majority of respondents felt they had enough information to make a decision when they voted in February, school officials see room for improvement in educating the public on high school facility needs.

Nearly half of those participating in a district-sponsored poll this summer had never been in a Wa-Hi classroom or it had been longer than five years ago when they were. And tours have been poorly attended.

“It’s a challenge for us,” Miller said. “Not many people decide to see a chemistry lab.”

But he and Communications Director Mark Higgins are determined to press on to benefit students and enhance student achievement.

They agree, for instance, that proposed project costs need to be delineated more clearly and the correlation between classroom comfort and student achievement fully explained.

Also, voters need to be aware that the district’s maintenance budget is not intended to, nor can it, pay for major facility renovation.

District buildings are maintained as they were built. “I think our maintenance crew does an incredible job,” Miller said, adding its total annual budget amounts to about $4 million — roughly 6 percent of the $65-million general fund.

Another issue, the impact on Wa-Hi enrollment because of College Place’s new high school, has to be pinned down and clarified, officials believe.

Ninth-graders there will begin attending classes next school year on the second floor of the Sager school gym. But Golden, who is concerned about crowding at the 1,800-student Wa-Hi, pointed out that will amount to only about 95 of the approximate 350 total College Place students now at the Walla Walla school. And how many will elect to keep going to Wa-Hi is unknown.

To garner voter support for modernization, “We have to continue to be open and honest,” Miller said. “We can do a better job of counteracting misinformation. We have to talk with people.”

Higgins agrees.

“The best form of education is face-to-face, he said.

“People are very generous and forgiving. You really need to show them what they’re getting and why it’s important. If it’s such a priority to them, they will make it happen.”

Officials are optimistic despite the February bond failure and a similar defeat in 2006 when voters overwhelmingly rejected a $53.95 million measure that included rebuilding Wa-Hi.

School bonds only pass on average at a 30 percent rate in this state, according to Miller. “When you start, it’s an uphill climb. High schools are more difficult to pass than grade schools and middle schools. It’s because of the cost.”

But he and others are confident that the advisory committee will develop a solid recommendation for the board to consider.

“The School Board is data driven,” Higgins said. “(Members) keep an open mind and know ultimately they are here to serve the public. They take information seriously.”

Golden added it will be hard work. “It’ll take some time, but we really want to do it right.”

Some improvements at Wa-Hi have been made over the years, such as additions of the large gymnasium, the performing arts auditorium and the library after a successful $3.62 million bond issue in 1989.

But much of the core of the school remains as it was built in 1963 and the district has tried over the course of seven years to fund further updates.

A third election defeat might stymie progress for another decade.

“I want to make sure whatever we do next is palatable enough to the voters because Walla Walla High School needs to be modernized,” Miller said.

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