The big question in Port Angeles this month is whether the voters will give their school district an early Valentine on Feb. 10 by approving a $98.25 million bond issue.
The answer may lie in the hands of the district’s proximate 8,500 senior citizen voters. There are 19,080 registered voters in the Port Angeles School District. The bond issue supporters, PACE (Port Angeles Citizens for Education), estimate that 45 percent of those voters are 55 or older.
The proposal needs to win at least 60 percent of the votes cast in order to pass. Steve Methner, co-chair of PACE, admits that it’s a big challenge. “The decision makers are the 55-plus citizens,” he said, but his group is focusing on turning out as many parents and new voters as possible.
This election is not likely to draw voter participation much above 50 percent, according to Shoona Riggs, county auditor-elect, based on turnouts for the last two such elections. If she’s right, PACE needs to win at least 6,000 voters out of a likely turnout of 10,000 to succeed. Although PACE has been campaigning for several weeks, the election will truly jump to the top of the public agenda this month when an opposition group is expected to begin a counter campaign.
I heard speculation that conservative activist Kaj Ahlburg planned to lead the opposition, but Ahlburg says that’s not true. We spoke on Dec. 16, and he said he will support the opposition, adding that “there is a group of folks planning to raise money” for such a campaign. He did not name anyone, but suggested they would soon become known by their actions.
Expect the opposition to oppose the bond issue on the basis that the proposal put forward is not the best way to get the job done. In other words, the issue will not be whether the high school needs to be improved, but what is the best way to do it.
I’ve talked with about a dozen senior citizens, and it’s clear that PACE and the school district have an uphill climb to win. The first question most doubters ask is why can’t the school be rebuilt one building at a time, instead of all at once with a whopping bond issue.
The response is along the lines of: If you think it looks expensive now, try voting it down and watch the cost go up.
According to school district officials and the leaders of PACE, there is no Plan B. If the voters say no on Feb. 10, the price will only go up and the school district will still have to ask for an approval with a second election.
It can’t be done efficiently one building at a time, Methner said. First of all, state law requires that if you bring one building up to code, then you must also fix up any connecting building or any building within 25 feet. Methner said that leaves only the 100 Building as one that could be upgraded without affecting others.
Furthermore, he said, the ultimate cost would be far greater by remodeling and rebuilding in phases. “Construction costs are increasing at the rate of four percent a year,” he said. “And we don’t have any local contractors who are big enough to do even one phase in Clallam County.” In other words, the idea of phasing would not save money or enable local contracting. (This does not preclude the possibility of local sub-contractors getting some of the work.)
The high school’s buildings range from 50 to 60 years old, lack accommodating infrastructure for modern computer education and have walls made of unreinforced concrete. Look, one source told me, there is only one working drinking fountain on campus.
The bottom line is that the bond issue will require taxpayers to pay $1.60 per thousand dollars of property valuation beyond what they now pay (this is a net cost considering the retirement of other bonds to reduce the net from $2.06 to $1.60). PACE points out that the true net cost will be even lower, however, because property owners can claim a federal income tax deduction due to the bond issue. They estimate that the bonds would cost someone owning a $200,000 home $230 a year in the 28 percent tax bracket.
Methner said people also need to understand that all the money won’t be spent at once and that, in reality, the job will be done in phases even with the full bond issue, but quicker than it otherwise could be. The plan does not include the gymnasium. The performance center will not be rebuilt, but will get a makeover for the lobby and restrooms.
Another member of PACE, Andy Geiger of Freshwater Bay, makes an additional argument.
Geiger has worked at several universities, and is best known as athletic director at Ohio State and Stanford. He is no stranger to multi-million-dollar budgets.
In his view, the high school and the schools in general are at the heart of the community’s economic engine. “My opinion,” he said, “comes from experience of moving with young children, and recruiting staff through searches always asking or answering: How are the schools, and/or where are the best ones?”
“If seniors,” Geiger said, “want excellent resources in our increasing time of need, our best insurance is an excellent school district with above-average facilities.”
Without strong schools, the city’s economy will grow worse, he said. This issue is too big for voters to ignore their ballots. I won’t be surprised if this election draws 60 percent participation. If it also draws 60 percent approval, then Port Angeles High School will be set up for a physical rebirth.
John Merton Marrs worked as a daily newspaper writer and reporter from 1963-1990, covering politics and government, including public education. He is also a retired educator, having taught 16 years at public colleges and universities.