Sequim School District levy proposals earn passing grades in special election

Sequim schools felt the love on Valentine’s Day.

Voters in the Sequim School District approved two district levy proposals — a four-year Educational Programs and Operations Replacement levy, also known as Proposition 1, and a three-year Capital Projects levy, Proposition 2 — in a special election on Feb. 14.

Preliminary numbers Tuesday showed Proposition 1 passed with 65.54 percent of ballots cast (7,342 votes for, 3,860 against), while Proposition 2 earned 66.76 percent approval (7,479 yes votes, 3,723 no votes).

Those numbers stayed about the same with a secondary count on Feb. 17, with Proposition 1 passing with 66.57 percent of ballots and Proposition 2 passing at a 67.53 percent rate.

“(I’m) just very excited for our students more than anybody, (and) grateful that our community came together to support this,” Sequim School Board president Robin Henrikson said on election night.

“It’s not just about schools — it’s about our entire community. I’m really relieved and excited.”

The Educational Programs and Operations (EP&O) levy replaces the district’s four-year levy that expires at the end of 2017. It runs from 2018-2021 and generates $26.5 million to pay for more teachers to reduce class sizes, programs like Highly Capable and Advanced Placement courses, curriculum, books and technology, overall district maintenance and activities such as sports and after-school clubs.

The capital project levy will generate about $5.75 million over three years and pay to demolish an unused portion of the Sequim Community School and expand and renovate the central kitchen facility in the same building.

“It’s very exciting that our community is going to trust us with these projects and get things started, and hopefully it’s the beginning of several other good things that can come from that,” Sequim schools superintendent Gary Neal said last week.

The unused portion of the community school built in 1949 and shuttered in 2012 because it was found to be unsafe for students would give the school district access to $4.3 million in state matching funds for new construction.

Combined, the two levies will cost taxpayers $1.68 per $1,000 assessed home valuation in 2018, $1.90 in 2019, $2.36 in 2020 and $1.57 in 2021.

The Sequim School District’s board of directors sent four bond proposals to voters since April 2014 and all failed. Unlike bonds that are used for new construction and require at least 60 percent voter approval, both the Educational Programs Operations Levy and Capital Project levy require at least 50 percent voter approval to pass.

On Feb. 14, Neal and Henrikson and other Sequim school supporters saw the community back two levy plans.

“I think, in general, that people who didn’t support (the previous bond) this time felt we listened to what they wanted and acted on that, as well as what’s best for out students,” Henrikson said.

“The fact that we threw two levies out at the same time gives us confidence, because the last time we did that in 2013, the community supported that,” Neal said. “You just never know (about the election results); you never know what people are thinking, you never know how well you get the message out and how clear it is, and what people’s interpretations are.”

The next step in the Capital Projects levy, Neal said, is finding a project planner.

“One step at a time — we’ll get a capital projects manager hired. They’re the experts in the construction component and kind of oversee and make sure they’re following plans,” Neal said.

“We’re just getting into the depth of what our community is feeling and how they would go about this,” Neal said. “Now we’re excited to continue on this endeavor with them, because we’re developing partnerships — and we definitely need the community to be involved with us on the way.”

Next steps

“The first thing we’re doing is exhaling,” Neal said.

He explained that supporters worked hard to get these leveis passed and would like to take the time to thank groups in the community such as the League of Women Voters, James S’Klallam Tribe, CEO Eric Lewis and Olympic Medical Center, and Sequim City Manager Charlie Bush, to name a few.

The district’s next step is to start creating the job description for a project manager and hopefully hire someone by the end of the school year.

“The project manager is the linchpin of the whole thing. Once that person gets involved, now we can start looking at financial decisions,” he said.

One option available is to use what Neal explained as non-voted debt — a bank loan that would allow the school district to access funds interest free until it could pay off the loan when levy money is collected starting Jan. 1, 2018.

With these funds, Neal said, the district can get started on the work that needs to be done such as hiring a project manager and working on the district kitchen in the summer so it can be ready by the time school starts in September.

Laurie Campen, director of Food Services, said her department is excited about voters passing the Capital Project Levy.

“It’s going to really help us out here with updated equipment,” she said. “We can do homemade food again, improve food service and employee morale working with equipment so old, it’s a great positive step for us.”

Campen said if officials were to knock down and rebuild the Sequim Community School in the summer the district kitchen would not be affected by construction, but if construction continued during the school year the kitchen would have to temporarily relocate some of its services to other areas in the district such as the middle and high school.

Neal also said he would like to have conversations about a possible bond within the year.

“I have to be a good steward of the resources in this community,” he said. “We know interest rates will probably climb, the cost of materials, supplies will start to climb, there is some prudence in getting things done sooner than later.”

In order for the district to apply for the $4.3 million in state matching funds, a bond must be on the table. Neal explained that if interest rates or the cost of materials were to increase over the next couple of years, the cost of a bond might be significantly higher than if it were to be discussed now.

In West Valley-Spokane, the previous district he worked for, Neal said it started with a $38 million bond that over the course of three years would have increased to $52 million if he would have waited to put it on the table three years later.

“The construction manager said if you did this exact same bond right now within three years, it would cost $52 million to run this $38 million bond.” At the time, this was because of an increase in gas prices that lead to an increase in the cost of other supplies and materials.

Neal said he wants to keep the community involved in the district’s plans every step of the way.

“If we stay engaged with the community and if the community stays engaged with us, then we will have these conversations and do temperature checks and see what people are thinking and how they feel about this, and get the data for them so they can make informed decisions,” Neal said.

The Sequim superintendent said he wants the district to use local resources in the area and allow opportunities for students and other residents to be involved with the construction process.

“Not only (are there) local resources capable of doing it but also opportunities for our students, students from Peninsula College, (North Olympic Peninsula) Skills Center students, anybody that’s been in trade schools to have an opportunity to be an intern or job shadowing, that’s our educational piece,” he said.