School bond rate rise will boost taxpayer cost

Rates are 50-60 percent higher than they were when voters rejected a Wa-Hi overhaul last year.

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WALLA WALLA — You get what you pay for.

Unfortunately for district taxpayers, if voters now were to decide to renovate Walla Walla High School to the extent of the proposal they turned down in the February bond election, they’d be paying substantially more.

Members of the district’s Community Facilities Task Force Committee learned as much as they sat down for two meetings recently to hold preliminary discussions on how the School Board might proceed with trying to attain funding for improvements to 1963 structures at the school.

Officials are aware many voters want a project that costs less and is built in phases, facilitated by passage of separate bond issues.

But as officials warned, it appears it will cost more in the long run.

For instance, passage next year of a comprehensive plan similar to the one proposed last February would increase property taxpayer bills by about $1 per $1,000 assessed valuation — some 30 cents or more than the 68 cents per $1,000 rejected at the polls.

Even with budgeting less for project development costs, architects with the firm BLRB told committee members this month the total expense would still be about $70 million and the bond issue about $48 million — taking into account a state match — because of increased construction costs and inflation.

But a larger factor is a hike in the bond interest rate of about 50-60 percent since the election early this year.

Completing the renovations in phases relying on two separate bond issues could be equally expensive.

Expanding and modernizing the science and academic buildings in a first phase, for instance, would amount to about 48 cents per $1,000.

Completing renovation of the commons and library spaces, fitness center, music building and the Career and Technical Education building in a future, second phase about four years later would add about 55 cents per $1,000.

(Construction of a new track would not be included in such a proposal as officials now are anticipating it will be funded privately.)

A new approach

The facilities committee, which ultimately will give a recommendation to the School Board on how to proceed, is looking at a new concept of Wa-Hi modernization that’s developing.

The school currently accommodates 91 teaching stations, including portable classrooms. Any proposed plan should include 85 stations, taking into account the eventual loss of about 350 College Place students but leaving room for future population growth, administrators say.

And they insist the 800-square-foot classrooms need to be expanded by at least 100 square feet, and science labs must come in at about 1,600.

“We need to gain classroom space,” Superintendent Mick Miller said at a recent meeting. “Classrooms are too small.”

To that end, the committee is intrigued by an idea to build a new “science academy” in an existing parking lot west of the current science building.

The current building, in addition to the academic building, then could be modernized less expensively to achieve needed classroom space. Also, accommodating students during construction likely would be more cost-effective and convenient.

Including the other planned campus improvements, such a comprehensive project would total about $75.6 million, according to architect estimates. With a state match, that would amount to a $49.9 million bond and cost property taxpayers roughly $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.

If completed in phases and after successful passage of two bond issues, the first phase could consist mainly of the new science academy plus classroom expansions in the existing science and academic buildings. With state matching money, the $41.6 million cost would result in a $26.4 million bond issue, adding about 53 cents per $1,000 to property taxpayers’ bills.

The second phase addressing the commons, library, fitness center, music building and CTE building would cost $35.1 million, require passage of a $27.5 million bond and increase tax payments by about 55 cents per $1,000.

Some committee members said at their last meeting such a plan would be consistent with a previous recommendation of rectifying deficiencies at Wa-Hi focusing on the highest priorities and addressing them in phases.

The committee, composed of parents, community leaders, staff and area business representatives, will receive more information later this month.

The School Board also is expected to hold a work session in a few weeks.

Phasing with separate bonds

All seem to agree that based on this summer’s Wa-Hi survey results, voters want improvements to be less costly than proposed in February.

Phasing may be one approach in that it would delay some costs.

Currently the district’s annual bond rate for property taxpayers is $1.25 per $1,000 as the 2007 Edison School measure is being paid off. A first phase of Wa-Hi renovations might add about 50 cents to that amount, compared to the 68 cents for complete modernization that voters rejected last winter.

A second phase, if voters were to approve another bond measure four years from now, would require an additional 50 cents or so.

However, officials point out that the Edison bond will expire at the end of 2018. So even if voters were to approve a two-phased renovation of Wa-Hi, they then will be paying less per $1,000 of assessed value than they currently are.

Facilities committee member Jerry Zahl told his colleagues at a meeting last week he believes any construction project should be practical, durable and affordable.

“I believe strongly in phases,” he said. “Just like our homes. We don’t do (improvements) all at once.”

Jim Peterson agreed, adding, “I absolutely support doing science and math first.”

Mark Higgins, the district’s communication director, cautioned that voters also need to be well aware of additional needs, such as at Lincoln and other district schools. He suggested a time line be drawn up and publicized.

“This is going to be a continual process,” Higgins said.

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