WALLA WALLA — Little is clear but the fact that the path to renovate Walla Walla High School will remain fraught with divisiveness after the Walla Walla School District held a public work session Tuesday to discuss plans for future bond issues.
In short, the community has shown it is unwilling to pass a single large bond to pay for renovations to the aging school. But since a $48 million bond measure failed in February, both construction costs and interest rates have risen — meaning whatever construction dollars become available won’t stretch as far.
The district is taking a hard look at a phased plan for renovation, with a bond issue in 2014 and another in 2019 to lessen the effect on taxpayers. But former School Board member Max Carrera, who resigned in August, did not mince words at Tuesday’s meeting about his opposition to renovate the school in increments.
Calling such a plan “grossly irresponsible” and “sabotage,” Carerra said the costs of spreading construction on Wa-Hi out over essentially a decade would be too great to both the district’s bottom line and students’ academic achievement. He argued to either do the renovation in one stage, a plan voters have already shot down, or do no renovation at all.
Carrera’s objections and the results of several surveys on the failed bond measure highlight the difficult position Walla Walla School District is in, as it must balance rising construction costs, rising interest rates and student achievement against the community’s apparent lack of an appetite for major spending on school renovation.
Although it asked several pointed questions, the School Board, with all five members present, raised no serious objections to the phased proposal most likely to be submitted by the district’s Community Facilities Task Force.
The first phase would consist of a remodel of the science and academic buildings and construction of a new science add-on placed between the current science building and the Career and Technical Education building. It would also include construction of new soccer fields, a fitness facility and a new parking lot on the southern side of campus. In total the first phase would cost the district roughly $25 million after state matching funds.
The second phase would consist of modernizing the CTE building, construction of two additional classrooms for the music and drama departments, modernization of the library and commons, and construction of a new administration area. It would cost $26 million after contributions from the state.
Total cost to Walla Walla taxpayers would be $51 million. If the first bond passed, property tax rates would rise by roughly 54 cents per $1,000 of assessed value over 30 years, according to district projections. Given the volatility of interest rates, the district’s projections become more tenuous for a second bond, which the district would hope to pass in 2019 after bond payments end for the renovation of Edison Elementary.
District Business Operations Director Ted Cohan estimated the cost for the second phase to be about the same as the first.
The original plan to renovate Wa-Hi in a single bond issue would have cost taxpayers 68 cents per $1,000.
“We kind of missed that boat of perfect interest rates in February,” Cohan said.
Combined the two phases would accomplish many of the same goals of the original renovation plan but spread out the costs over two separate bond elections.
Wa-Hi English teacher Keith Swanson said at the meeting the board has little choice but to pursue a phased approach.
“I think the district will look pretty deaf to the people if it tries to run the same bond again,” Swanson said, “even though most of the people in the room recognize the common-sense approach of a single bond issue.”
But Carrera said more should be done to address younger voters, who turned out in far fewer numbers for the February election than those 60 years and older. He argued that younger demographics would see more benefit from renovating Wa-Hi and be more likely to vote for a single bond approach.
“We’re looking at what can be done to get the group of people that voted to pass it,” Carrera said. “Nothing is being done to address the group of people who didn’t vote.”
District spokesman Mark Higgins said that regardless of cost savings with a single bond, the district must consider a phased approach.
“Now we’re at a point where it’s become more of a political issue as opposed to what’s logical,” Higgins said.
The Community Facilities Task Force has not yet voted on a final recommendation to the board, and as a result the board has not yet set a date to vote on a final plan.
The district has until Dec. 27 to file a resolution for the bond if it wants to run it in the Feb. 11 election.
Ben Wentz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8315.