This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
Voters can’t be blamed for wondering if the districts’ timing is off, but the need to modernize and expand schools isn’t going away.
Bad things can happen to good ideas on the way to the ballot.
No one – certainly not Tacoma and Puyallup school district officials – knew when they were making plans at this time last year how far and fast the U.S. economy would fall. Yet here they are, with the country in the grip of a recession, trying to make their case for new taxes to build schools, modernize others and equip campuses with up-to-date technology.
It’s an uphill fight, to be certain. Puyallup and Tacoma voters turned down similar bond measures in much better times. For taxpayers to take on millions more in debt now would be an act of faith – in economic recovery and the power of education.
The News Tribune’s editorial board hopes voters take that leap even as we recognize that many struggling families will be simply unable to see their way beyond present circumstances.
The needs won’t go away. Puyallup and Tacoma are big districts with a lot of schools of varying ages and conditions to maintain. Neither the districts nor taxpayers have the capacity to tackle every project at once. Districts depend on regular infusions of bond proceeds to slowly – and methodically, it’s hoped – make their way around to all schools.
For almost two decades, Tacoma followed a schedule of returning to voters every four or five years with a proposition for building new schools and taking care of older ones. It met with success – until 2006 when the district had to abandon a bond measure to focus on getting a vital operations levy passed. It’s now been eight years since voters approved new taxes for overhauling buildings.
The district is asking for $300 million to finish an overhaul of Wilson High School, renovate Stewart Middle School, replace Baker and Hunt middle schools and do dozens of other projects including athletic field and school theater improvements. The bond would cost the owner of an average $245,000 home about $184 a year.
District officials are proud of the building standards by which they construct new schools, which are among the best in the state. Anyone who has visited the newer Tacoma schools knows they are impressive buildings.
The district is hoping to maintain that same standard in the next set of projects. If the bond passes, the school board should look to stretch its dollars as far as they’ll go, by possibly forgoing some upgrades.
Such an approach would show that the district appreciates that many residents are facing bleak economic prospects and some will be hard-pressed to take on any additional tax burden. Who knows? Given the bargain prices for construction right now, the district might even be able to expedite an additional school project.
In Puyallup, school officials are not just trying to repair and replace, but also make room for a student body that’s bulging at the seams. One in six Puyallup students is educated in a portable, and demographers expect the district could add 700 more pupils over the next six years.
The district needs to catch up. Its $257 million bond measure would reach far and wide, delivering the replacement of Firgrove, Spinning and Waller Road elementary schools, a new elementary school on South Hill and additions at Puyallup, Emerald Ridge and Rogers high schools. Seven elementary schools would also get new lunch service areas.
A second measure, the district’s $57 million capital projects levy, would replace computers, upgrade technology, and buy new roofs and heating systems for some schools, among other items.
Together, the measures would cost the owner of an average $280,000 home $233 a year.
Tough economic times call for a return to priorities, and there are few more important priorities than the community’s children. Voters – if they feel able – should support the Tacoma and Puyallup school measures.