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Q&A: The 2014 Sequim School Construction Bond
On April 22, voters in the Sequim School District will decide the fate of the district’s capital construction bond to remodel Sequim High School, build a new elementary school, add classrooms to Greywolf Elementary School and more.
The election would ask voters to approve or reject $154,325,000 in bonds over 20 years to finance construction of projects recommended by a community committee and approved by the school board on Feb. 11.
We asked Superintendent of Sequim Schools Kelly Shea and Director of Business Brian Lewis to answer questions posed at several recent forums.
This proposal — $154 million plus $107 million in interest over 20 years — is going to support about 2,700 students (FTE). Isn’t this proposal a lot of money to spend per student?
Brian Lewis: That’s one way to think about it. Another way to think about it is the number of students served over the expected 50-year life span of the buildings. If we assume we’re going to stay at 2,700 students, over 50 years the buildings will serve 135,000 students. This takes the per student cost to $1,933.
Isn’t this a “wish” list rather than a “needs” list?
Lewis: The 2013 Community Facilities Committee, before it began its evaluation of the current state of our buildings, defined a set of criteria it expected the buildings to meet. Foremost among those criteria were that buildings must provide adequate space for the students we already have and expect in the near future, provide a safe and secure environment for learning and achievement, and provide a platform for a modern educational program. Each proposed project in the bond contributes to attaining these goals. In that regard, the proposed projects are “needs” in the eyes of the 2008 Facilities Committee, the 2013 Facilities Committee, and the current district Board of Directors.
How did you come to these figures for each of the bond items?
Lewis: Cost estimates were completed using a three-part process. Space needs were determined based on the number of students we have and the types of classrooms they need. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) publishes each year showing the average per square foot cost to construct different types of schools (elementary, middle and high) over a 12-year period. This average cost per square foot is multiplied by the total square footage needed determined in the first step. These first two steps determine an estimate of “hard costs” or the cost solely to construct the building. Hard costs do not include architectural services, permitting, site prep, or contingency, so those costs are estimated based on the hard costs and the sum of these two equals the total cost estimate.
Have you explored other funding possibilities?
Kelly Shea: Yes, we explored all of our options, but they are very limited. One area that I believe we as a district and as a community must pursue is respectfully demanding the state to financially support any construction required to meet their mandates. By 2018 all districts must implement all-day kindergarten.
However, the increase in funding that we will receive will cover the cost of additional teachers, but will not help us in creating the classrooms we need to add. The new third-year science requirement for graduation will force us to add new science classrooms in order to accommodate students. We are already short one science classroom to meet today’s requirements. This new requirement will mean that we need to add another two to four science classrooms.
Again, we will be receiving additional funding, but none of it will cover the cost of creating the classroom space. I know Reps. Tharinger and Van De Wege were supporting a bill this year that would have provided additional funding for districts that need to construct new kindergarten space. Unfortunately, it did not get to the governor. As superintendent, I will be working with our board and with community leaders to send this message to our Legislature.
Lewis: There are three primary ways to fund school construction in Washington:
• Issue bonds as the Sequim School District is proposing
• Ask voters to approve a capital levy
• Save money from operations by cutting costs
Each of these options was considered, but the final method selected by the board was to ask voters to approve bonds. The amount of funding that can be provided by a capital levy is limited, so not enough funds to complete the projects would have been provided. Also, the per thousand amount needed to generate an amount of funds to start a project would have been extremely high. Saving money from operations would have resulted in not asking voters to raise property taxes, but would take generations to save enough money to do even one of the smaller projects and would have decreased the services the district could provide to current students because 80 percent of the district’s operating costs are salaries for staff members who have direct contact with students. For this reason, this alternative was not chosen.
Who will make sure there are no project overruns?
Lewis: If the bond proposal is approved, the district plans to hire an experienced project manager to represent the district through all phases of construction with the stated intent of ensuring the projects are completed on time, under budget and include the materials and techniques specified by architects and engineers.
Why build a new elementary school? And why on the east end of town?
Shea: Due to the inadequacy of the building which does not meet today’s educational needs as well as future needs, the Facilities Committee determined to replace the current Haller Elementary with a new school built in the eastern part of Sequim. This decision was based on the vision that future growth in regard to houses will be in this area and on the need to create greater distance between our two elementary schools, giving the district greater flexibility to maintain balanced student enrollment between the two schools.
Considering the slowing of population growth in Clallam County and City of Sequim, do you really think the population in Sequim is going to grow in coming years to help pay for this bond?
Lewis: The projects proposed in the bond provide adequate housing for the students we have now and for additional students we expect to have when all-day kindergarten begins. The district currently has 17 portable classrooms throughout the campuses, some of which have been in place for 30 years. This is an indicator that there are not enough rooms in the site built buildings to house all of our students. The start of all-day kindergarten will require the addition of five new kindergarten classrooms throughout the district. The state Legislature also added a new science requirement that students must meet in order to graduate from high school. The proposed projects include an expanded high school with additional science labs so our students can meet these science credit requirements. Student population estimates through 2031 indicate that the student population of Sequim School District will grow from its current level of approximately 2,740 to 3,100.
We are a retirement community with a number of low-income families as well. Doesn’t this bond put undue burden on the people in between?
Lewis: “Undue burden” is a subjective term. Each and every voter will have to answer that question for themselves. However, if the bond passes, the estimated total schools tax rate will be less than the average of all school districts in Washington, than all districts with a similar student population to ours and than all districts with an assessed valuation similar to Sequim’s.
Isn’t our student enrollment stagnant?
Shea: Our total district enrollment has declined somewhat over the past few years, but we are beginning to experience growth at the elementary level and expect to continue this growth for the next five to six years at which time these students will then begin moving into our secondary schools. We currently do not have any available classrooms in our elementary schools and will need to purchase at least three new portables in the next two years. In addition, we are currently using eight portable classrooms at the high school. Anticipated student growth, however, is only one factor in our decision to replace and modernize our school facilities.
Lewis: The proposed projects provide housing for the students we currently have and expect to have due to the implementation of all-day kindergarten by 2018 and a steadily increasing birth rate in our district through 2012. Washington State Department of Health birth statistics indicate that Sequim School District kindergarten enrollment should increase from 188 students to 240 students over the next six years. This is just kindergarten, so each of these larger kindergarten classes continue through the entire grade system as they age. Because of the increasing birth rate, we expect to see our overall student population slowly and steadily increasing over the next 20 years.
Regarding school security: Can’t you just build a fence around the schools you want to secure or simply hire security guards?
Shea: Yes. Fences and security guards are options to improve security, but these solutions do not address the educational inadequacies and inefficiencies of our current facilities. They will not provide housing for all-day kindergarten, science classrooms to meet new graduation requirements, a base kitchen to serve all 2,800 students or remove portable classrooms. Also, we want to be very careful to not create a sense that our schools are dangerous as we improve safety. We want people to believe that our campuses are well controlled.
In terms of safety and security, what is the difference from a statistical viewpoint between the California-style, open campus you have at two schools (Helen Haller Elementary School, Sequim High School) and the closed, single-entry style you are proposing to build?
Kelly Shea: This is a great question and one that I don’t know the answer. Schools are increasingly becoming a target of violence. If an individual chooses to do harm at a school, we can’t guarantee it won’t happen. We have to create an environment that first deters anyone from choosing our schools as a target. Second, we have to make access to our students and our staff as difficult as possible. In these situations, every second counts in saving lives. Law enforcement officials have expressed great concern for the open campus design and have advocated for the single roof, single point of entry facility.
Does new construction mean we are going to see improved student performance?
Shea: I believe the answer is Yes. Research clearly indicates that schools with consistent climate controlled environments, air exchange and infusion of natural light all make a positive difference in student achievement. New and modernized facilities will provide flexible and adaptable spaces for learning allowing teachers and students to access technology, collaborate in teams and incorporate instructional strategies that align with 21st-century learning.
Aren’t our athletic fields good enough?
Shea: Depends on who you ask. Those that use our facilities will tell you, “No, they are not.” Our tennis courts are severely cracked, the track is full of potholes, the football/soccer field is inconsistent, the softball field has no room for spectators, the baseball diamond has a sunken infield and our gym floor is warped and hard as a rock. There are no requirements for the quality of our athletic facilities, but we do want to ensure that our playing surfaces are safe for all that use them.
Could you break up this proposal into separate elections?
Lewis: We studied a scenario in which we conducted three separate elections over a three-year period to ask voters to approve the projects separately. The scenario resulted in an increased interest cost of $10 million, confirming our conclusion that a single election seeking approval for the proposed projects is the lowest cost path. Delaying the start of the proposed projects would result in higher construction costs in addition to higher interest costs.
What happens if we, the voters, reject this bond proposal?
Lewis: District administration will work with the Board of Directors to formulate a solution to the facilities problems. Ultimately it will be up to the Board of Directors to decide what path we follow. While we don’t know what that path may be, we do know that the problems addressed by this proposal will not go away simply because voters may not approve this bond proposal. They will remain, conditions for learning in the buildings will worsen and the cost of potential solutions will rise as interest rates and construction costs continue to increase.