Coupeville plans school bond campaign

Coupeville School Board members got an insider’s look Monday night at what it takes to win a bond levy election.

Presentation. Public involvement. Timing. All are important ingredients in getting taxpayers to buy off on a multi-million dollar project.

Right now these questions are theoretical. School board members have yet to formally approve a bond issue to place before voters.

Indeed, board members were still debating whether to relocate the district’s aging high school to a field behind the middle school or to tear down the building in stages and replace it on the same site.

“The high school has a lot of ghosts and a lot of memories,” said board member Mitchell Howard, adding that some members of the community might prefer to keep the high school as it is, while building a new, modernized school behind it.

Built in 1940, the high school would be the centerpiece of any bond levy request the district floats. The high school’s antiquated electric systems, barely functioning bathrooms and other expensive, ongoing maintenance issues have pushed the beloved building to the top of the district’s to-do list.

And right now, despite these uncertainties over how to best update the high school, it appears school board members are moving toward placing a bond issue on the February 2004 ballot — less than six months away.

To help get the process rolling, board members tentatively agreed to form a task force to help guide the district as it makes plans for a project with a price tag ranging from $9 million to $15 million, depending on which option is decided on.

Board members will discuss the details of that task force at next Monday’s board meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in the Coupeville Elementary School library.

Cindy Van Dyk, a mother of a second and fifth grader, cautioned the board to allow the task force to be as inclusive as possible.

“If you hand select the task force you’re inviting criticism. They’ll pick it apart,” she said.

But some board members and architect Jack Hutteball, who has headed up the district’s preliminary design efforts, said the task force can’t become too big or it will be unwieldy.

A better solution, Hutteball said, is to schedule community meetings along with task force meetings, to allow all community members to voice their concerns.

He suggested actively courting people who may lean toward wanting the aging high school to stay exactly as it is.

“We need people on the committee that say ‘It was good enough for me, it’s good enough for my kids.’”

Hutteball, a senior architect based out of Kirkland, shared with the board his experiences at different school districts going after bond issues.

Timing is important, he said. School bond requests fare best during off-cycle elections, when fewer voters go to the polls on hot-button political issues, but core education supporters turn out to vote yes.

Also important in winning voter approval is giving the public a sufficient sense of the architectural design, but not so many details that the project is torn apart before it’s ever built.

School districts with recent school bond successes, in places such as Monroe and Snoqualmie, gave voters few concrete details other than square footage and a general design, Hutteball said.

That allowed these districts to estimate what the costs would be and, once the bond passed, more detailed design work was done, all within the financial limits of the bond issue approved by voters.

Coupeville faces several difficult issues. The possibility that Whidbey Naval Air Station could wind up on an upcoming base closure list worries some people. In recent years, the district has seen an increasing number of students from military families move to the district and now these students number close to 180, or 14 percent of the 1,100-student district’s total population.

On the positive side, Superintendent Bill Myhr said that he recently attended a meeting on impact aid — money paid to districts to compensate for military students — and an official at that meeting felt the Oak Harbor Navy base was safe from closure.

Another issue is declining enrollment. The district has seen a slight drop in its overall student count in recent years, although Myhr said those numbers were now on the upswing.

Another financial hurdle for Coupeville is that it does not receive as much state-matching money as some other districts, due to the age of its school buildings and sharing facilities between its high school and middle school.

Constructing a new building behind the existing one would eliminate efficiencies that come from sharing the library, cafeteria and performing arts center, as the two schools currently do.

Also, if a new school is built and the old high school is left in place, state rules will prevent it from being used for classroom space. At the same time, the district would be left with heavy maintenance bills to keep the building from becoming a hazard.

The school district’s “study and survey” team concluded in July that tearing down the current high school, and replacing it in stages, is the best way to go.

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