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School board preps for big levy

The Snoqualmie Valley School District Board of Directors is nearing a decision on a proposed levy increase to build a new high school and elementary school in the Valley. Board members held a public hearing Thursday, Sept. 28, and plan to be ready to vote at their next meeting Oct. 12 so staff can begin preparing a resolution to put to voters in February.

Though the hearing was packed with nearly 30 people, many of them members of the task force that spent the past several months sorting through the district's building needs, few actually testified at the hearing, which lasted only five minutes.

After the hearing, school board members received a report from a consultant about planning for the possibility of a bond and discussed the issue.

"I do not think we can sit here and not do something," said Rudy Edwards, school board president. "We're trying to get ready for the 21st century. I think we have to move forward."

Enrollment projections over the next 14 years call for student populations to swell. At about 1,500 students, Mount Si High School already exceeds capacity and needs more temporary classrooms for students. By 2020, conservative estimates say there will be at least another 1,000 students and there could be more than double the current student population at the high school.

Elementary- and middle-school populations are also expected to rise, but not as much as in high school.

The proposal pitched by the task force - comprised of 23 people chosen to study the issue - calls for immediately building temporary classrooms at the current high school while building a new high school at a to-be-determined location that is estimated to cost $209.2 million.

That figure includes the $28.5 million cost of buying land, $29.6 million to build a new elementary school, $8.6 million for needed upgrades, $24.1 million to prepare for anticipated cost increases and $109 million to build the new high school.

The district is in good shape to collect the money that would be needed to pay for the new buildings, said Johnathan Gores, vice president of public finance for consulting firm Seattle-Northwest Securities Corporation.

"This district enjoys a very good bond rating," Gores said.

That means the district will get a good rate on its bond and the interest won't be as big a part of the bill. There are a lot of variables that affect what the actual tax rate will be: property values, growth, inflation, interest rates, market volatility and more. Gores said he estimated some factors conservatively to give a realistic estimate of the tax rate, without low-balling the figure.

The district's current bond levy rate is $1.58 per $1,000 of assessed value. If the district were to choose a flat 20-year levy rate, the taxes would jump to about $2.95 per $1,000 for the next 20 years, a $1.37 increase. As the current levy disappears, taxpayers would pay more on the proposed levy, keeping the tax the same year to year, according to Gores' projections.

That means the annual property tax on a $350,000 home would increase $480.85 with the new tax. If the property's assessed value stayed the same, the owner would continue to pay $1,016.35 each year in school taxes, if no additional levies were added.

According to Gore, some senior citizens may qualify for an exemption and taxpayers who itemize their tax returns would be allowed a deduction that would reduce their overall tax. Using the deduction, he added, a person in the 33 percent tax bracket would pay $322.17 after the deduction on the same $350,000 home.

"As bad as those numbers look, it's not going to get any better," said board member Rick Krona. Inflation, increasing land values and higher construction costs will only make the recommendation more expensive if it were delayed, he said.

Compared to other area school districts, Snoqualmie Valley would have a lower tax rate than 13 of 19 nearby districts. Issaquah homeowners pay $3.78 per $1,000 of assessed value, while Auburn and Fife have the highest taxes at $5.37 per $1,000 assessed value. Mercer Island has the lowest levy rate at $2.03 per $1,000 assessed value. Skykomish has no school district levy.

Most districts statewide that have a similar total assessed value also pay more for school levies than Snoqualmie Valley. Of the nine other districts with assessed value between $4.6 billion and $5 billion, Snoqualmie Valley would have the sixth lowest tax rate if the bond levy passes.

Snoqualmie Valley's assessed value is about $4.8 billion. Kennewick, with an assessed value of $4.6 billion, pays $4.90 per $1,000 assessed value. The next highest is Clover Park, which, with an assessed value of $4.7 billion, pays $3.87 per $1,000 assessed value. Bainbridge Island pays the least at $2.46 per $1,000 assessed value in a district with a total assessed value of $4.7 billion.

If approved in 2007 as proposed, the high school could be completed by 2011 when the total high-school population will be midway between 1,500 and 2,000 students. The proposed elementary school would be ready sooner.

The new comprehensive high-school concept was selected because it would result in two approximately same-sized high schools of about 1,500 students each.

It would also create the fewest number of new buildings, resulting in lower cost, and would avoid extensive remodeling of existing buildings.

Board member Rick Krona said he wanted to make sure the task force's recommendations sufficiently anticipated cost overruns and inflation.

Rick Marsh, construction program manager of KJM Associates for the district, said the building cost estimates are based on the anticipated square footage of the building plus 30 percent for taxes, permit fees and other costs with 10 percent built in for design and construction variance. Then, there's an additional 10 percent overall fudge factor for changes in the market.

The task force included the cost of buying land for a high school in its calculations, but was not privy to any deals the district may be able to make to use existing property. Existing properties on Snoqualmie Ridge acquired by the district for a high school and middle school are now too small because not all of the acreage is available. Marsh said the task force wasn't aware of potential land trades that may make the existing properties viable for their intended use.

Edwards said the board is in "heavy negotiations" that it can't discuss publicly yet to look at other property options that potentially could keep land costs down.

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