Surveys reject major bond issue

This panoramic view of the Walla Walla High School campus was created by combining several images. The Walla Walla School Board is trying to decide what to do about renovations or construction at the school.

This panoramic view of the Walla Walla High School campus was created by combining several images. The Walla Walla School Board is trying to decide what to do about renovations or construction at the school. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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Editor’s note

This is the first day of a two-day series exploring issues related to proposed modernization of Walla Walla High School. Today, we take an in-depth look at residents’ opinions as revealed in surveys taken this summer and officials’ reactions to them. On Monday, we’ll examine how the School District is preparing to move forward.

Read more

Hear what district officials say about survey results in a related story here.

WALLA WALLA — Results of three surveys conducted this summer on options for updating Walla Walla High School varied somewhat in the types of responses and demographics of participants.

But there is unanimity as to one fundamental issue.

None of the three indicates enough support for a one-shot, complete modernization — of the type and magnitude proposed in February’s failed $48 million bond election — to be approved by the required percentage of voters.

The School District sponsored two surveys in June.

One, a scientific poll conducted by telephone and facilitated by Washington State University Social and Economic Research Center, garnered 308 respondents.

Another was an online SurveyMonkey survey, completed primarily by about 450 district parents and employees.

In addition, the Union-Bulletin conducted its own readership survey in early July that resulted in a total of 536 responses, including 280 in the form of printed newspaper questionnaires and 256 that were completed online.

The School Board likely will hold a work session in coming weeks to analyze the polls. Meanwhile, the district’s Community Facilities Task Force Committee this month began discussing needs and options that officials hope will lead to renovations at Wa-Hi, in addition to a long-range districtwide construction plan.

The surveys asked residents a variety of questions, with the goal of determining how much, what type and in what manner voters would support Wa-Hi modernization in a future election or series of elections. Options included complete modernization such as the $69.6 million project officials were proposing in February (to be paid locally by the $48 million bond), renovation in stages or no bond at all.

Even the more sympathetic group completing the district’s SurveyMonkey poll fell short of the required 60 percent supermajority support to win a bond election for a comprehensive redo all in one shot. A total of 55.6 percent recommended that approach.

The WSU survey showed 47.9 percent of its respondents favored such complete renovation, despite 64.3 percent of those who said they voted in February indicating they cast ballots to approve the measure. The final election tally was 53.35 percent support.

The U-B survey of self-selected readers were asked to prioritize 18 possible Wa-Hi and other district projects, and if or when they should be completed. Opinions were sharply divided on the matter.

Of those who did prioritize, the top choice was complete modernization of Wa-Hi, favored as the No. 1 priority by 130 respondents, or 25.84 percent of the total.

But 128 people — just two fewer and totaling 25.45 percent — selected “do nothing at this time” as their first pick.

Overall in print and online, 50.78 percent of U-B respondents are 60 years old or older, nearly identical to that demographic encountered in the district’s WSU survey.

But an older group (nearly 70 percent who are 60 or older) completed the U-B’s printed survey, with 95 percent of them saying they voted in February’s election. Of those 257 who chose priorities, 101 people said to do nothing was their top pick. Only 34 favored the “do it all now” approach.

And those who want nothing done were adamant, with the vast majority of them citing inability to afford the debt, and the high cost for the public and themselves as reasons they voted no in February. Many survey respondents scribbled out all options other than “do nothing” and several wrote to the side “first, second and third priority.”

Opportunities exist

But deeper analysis of the U-B printed survey reveals several opportunities the School District can explore, even among this more resistant group.

Fifty people — of the 257 print respondents who chose priorities — rated modernization of the science building as their top pick.

(Building costs for that project were estimated in calculations for February’s election at $15.05 million, amounting to an additional local tax bill of 23 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.)

Remodeling of that structure also garnered a total of 52 second- and third-priority nods, amounting to the deepest level of survey support of any of the individual project options.

In addition, a total of 88 people marked a two-phase or three-phase approach to modernizing Wa-Hi as a first, second or third priority.

The work also could include renovation of the academic building, as 45 people listed that as one of their top three choices.

(That project would have cost about $19.8 million in building expenses, amounting to 28 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, according to estimates prepared for February’s election.)

Among both paper and online U-B responses, a combined total of 169 people marked either science building modernization, academic building renovation, or a three-phase or a two-phase approach to renovating Wa-Hi as their favored positions, outnumbering all single choices — including “complete modernization” and “do nothing at this time.”

The same type of support is evident from the district’s scientific WSU survey. Although about 48 percent wanted complete modernization, an additional 33 percent favored a phased approach. The total of 81 percent is overwhelming compared to the 19 percent who said no bond at all.

Of those favoring a phased approach, 54.7 percent ranked the science building as the highest priority, followed by 28 percent for the academic building.

In addition, all of the surveys showed that among those who voted for the February bond, their top reason was that facility needs are great. The second was student achievement would improve.

Therefore, the district can find optimism that given the right project with the right price tag and the right plan for implementation, Wa-Hi can be renovated sooner than later.

Even among those who voted no on the bond, less than 11 percent in the various survey groups said Wa-Hi doesn’t need improvement.

What to do about Lincoln?

At the same time, however, discussions have begun on whether to remodel or rebuild the 86-year-old Lincoln High School.

The WSU survey asked respondents what projects other than Wa-Hi should be viewed as the highest priority. Improving Lincoln was the standout at nearly 45 percent.

That was clear in the U-B survey, as well. But in that, readers were to choose between replacing and renovating Lincoln, and the resulting vision is blurred, at best.

Among the overall top choices for facility improvements, it was a near dead heat between the 27 who wanted a new Lincoln versus the 26 vying for a remodeled one.

Looking at the depth of support among print respondents, renovation was the first, second or third priority of 69 people. Replacing Lincoln received fewer total responses at 47.

But that choice was recommended in June by the Lincoln High School Community Facilities Study Committee.

Replacement also is favored by school district Superintendent Mick Miller because of its present condition and the fact it was built as an elementary school, not a high school.

“I’m going to have a tough time recommending we renovate that building,” he said in a recent interview.

But if the renovation alternative is attractive to residents either because of nostalgia or preservationist interests, it could prove to be a sticky wicket for a bond election proposing replacement.

Voters went to the polls four times within a decade to finally approve a $6.7 million bond in 1993 for the present combination of old and new at Green Park Elementary School.

U-B reporter Terry McConn grew up in Walla Walla in the 1960s, attended Sharpstein Elementary School, Pioneer Junior High and graduated from Walla Walla High School in 1970. His sons, Patrick and Christopher, went to the same schools, graduating from Wa-Hi in the early 2000s. His wife, Sherry, is a teacher at Wa-Hi.

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