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Bond's human side: Backers, foes of Snoqualmie middle school bond describe impact, issues

Matthew Coleman, a seventh grade student, and Justin Klock, in eighth grade, rehearse as part of their Chief Kanim Middle School concert band class’s second trumpet section. With Snoqualmie Valley School District poised to go from three middle schools to two in the event of a bond failure, measure supporters wonder how programs will cope.  - Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record
Matthew Coleman, a seventh grade student, and Justin Klock, in eighth grade, rehearse as part of their Chief Kanim Middle School concert band class’s second trumpet section. With Snoqualmie Valley School District poised to go from three middle schools to two in the event of a bond failure, measure supporters wonder how programs will cope.
— image credit: Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record

Snoqualmie Valley’s history-making bond measure, the $56.2 million Proposition 1 to build a new Snoqualmie Middle School, is back on the ballot Tuesday, April 26, to much surprise.

Valley Voters for Education, a fundraising group that campaigned strongly for the bond’s first vote on February 8, can’t believe it failed then, and by only one vote. Opponents of the measure can’t believe it is back on the ballot, specifically because it failed in both the general election and in a March 3 recount.

Following the March 9 certification of the recount result, the Snoqualmie Valley School Board had a single day to deliberate on re-running the bond. Taking the one-vote margin as a hopeful sign, they unanimously decided to try again.

Differing positions

For school administrators, this second bond campaign is about demonstrating the fiscal responsibility of the district, comparing SVSD’s overall tax rate—$3.88 per $1,000 of assessed value—to other districts’.

If the bond is approved, the rate will increase to $4.37, bumping the district’s tax rate up from the seventh to the tenth lowest of the 19 districts in King County.

District Finance Officer Ryan Stokes refers to the comparison as “another good indicator that, for the money that we do receive, we’re trying to maximize what we do with it.”

For bond supporters, the campaign is about more publicity, getting people out to vote. Several supporters at the March 10 school board meeting said they were surprised how many people hadn’t known about the last vote. The historic one-vote failure, and the state and national attention that it drew, make voter ignorance unlikely for the next ballot.

“I think we might pass this (next) bond like we’ve never passed a bond before,” Snoqualmie parent Sean Sundwall said, days after the recount that he initiated.

For bond opponents, it’s about money, about the district’s strategic planning, and about being heard.

“I have yet to hear anybody in our neighborhood say ‘Let’s get together with both sides and discuss this,’” said Snoqualmie resident Will Neiss. Quickly approaching the end of his second year of unemployment, Neiss says he can’t afford the roughly $14 extra per month the bond would cost him, and is “fed up” with the tone of bond supporters.

“People think if you’re against the bond, you hate education or you hate kids, but it’s not true,” he said. Good schools were one of the reasons Neiss and his wife Carla chose to live in this area, but financially, they can’t support the bond. “I’m hearing more and more about foreclosures... and we’re barely even staying in our house.”

‘Wait’ is the advice of most bond opponents: Wait for the economy to turn around, wait for the state legislature to finalize its school spending plans, wait for the school board to establish overall budget priorities, and wait for enrollment projections to prove true.

But waiting is not an option for the school district. April 26 is the last election that the district could make before the November general election, and “we don’t believe that we’d be able to finish the middle school by the fall of 2013 if we ran a November election,” Stokes said.

The bulk of the bond is to build a new Snoqualmie Middle School to open for the 2013-14 school year, the same year that the district will reopen the former Snoqualmie Middle School as a Freshman Learning Center.

Stokes said the idea of annexing SMS was part of the proposal from the High School Study committee of parents and staff last year. The committee was formed, after two failed bonds to build second high schools, to solve a crowding problem the district foresaw five years ago. Since then, high school projections have leveled off, but a surge in elementary enrollment will push middle schools to their capacity limits in the next few years, if the bond fails.

Two-school days

Kirk Dunckel, Chief Kanim Middle School Principal remembered what it was like at his school in 2007, the year before Twin Falls Middle School opened.

With 720 students and about 27 teachers, “We had every classroom full, and we had several teachers on carts,” he said. Two double-size portable classrooms helped with the space challenge, but common areas were packed, especially on rainy day recesses.

“And when you’re big, you have three lunches,” Dunckel said, “so as an administrator, I have an hour and a half of my day that’s literally being a cop, just trying to police, to make sure nothing happens.” He needed at least four other administrative staff members helping him oversee these lunch periods, he added.

If the bond fails, Dunckel is sure his school will get at least two portable classrooms back and possibly a third. He says the portables really aren’t that bad, but he worries that the crowding increases the chances that a student can have a negative experience. “The more things that could happen, do happen,” he said.

Twin Falls Middle School was a welcome addition to the district for Dunckel, his staff, and for parents like Jeff Mitchell. His son was attending Snoqualmie Middle School before Twin Falls opened in 2008, and he recalls “Over at Snoqualmie Middle School, toward the end, it was definitely getting crowded.”

If his youngest, now in fourth grade, ended up in the same type of environment, he would be concerned. Noise really affects her, he said, and he wouldn’t want to see her crowded in with 800-some students in one of two middle schools, should the bond fail.

All five of Mitchell’s children, though, “have a decent support structure at home,” he said. It’s the children who don’t that he worries about, and he sees them as the main beneficiaries of the bond.

Answering questions

Mitchell and Dunckel both expressed confidence in the planning that went into the bond, and the district’s financial decisions so far, but opponents are asking questions about possible short-term solutions to projected middle school crowding.

So, why not just use portable classrooms? After all, the district owns 21 of them. Portables, though, are not a “free” solution, says Cliff Brown, chairperson of Valley Voters for Education. There are significant costs associated with moving them and hooking them up with power. There is no water to the portables, either, and they don’t do anything to reduce crowding in the hallways and other common areas.

“It’s not the solution we want to hand our kids,” Brown said.

Why aren’t impact fees paying for the school? The district recently increased its school impact fee to $8,139 for each new home.

Fees are intended to pay for growth, Brown said, but they just aren’t enough to cover the costs.

Why isn’t the district pursuing state matching funds? Districts have received up to 50 percent of matching funds for construction costs.

“It’s hard to qualify for state match,” said Stokes. “For example, in the K-8 range, we would need another 700 unhoused kids to qualify for state matching funds. So in essence, you have to have the entire middle school housed in portables before you technically qualify for the state funding.”

The current bond before voters relies on no external funding to build the middle school and complete repairs to most of the other buildings in the district. The upgrades will extend the life of the buildings, which is essential now that the district has abandoned the idea of a second high school.

Mitchell is glad the second high school idea is no longer viable, and credits the district for its long-range planning with this bond.

“I think it seems reasonable for as far forward as you can look,” he said. “I see that growth bubble tailing off eventually, but your population doesn’t go away.”

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