On Feb. 14, Oak Harbor voters will decide the fate of a $121 million school bond proposal that would rebuild three schools and update security at all schools in the district.
School officials and teachers agree that the passage of the ballot measure is vital to the future of the district and the quality of education, particularly for grade school students. The overcrowding, lack of modern security and health concerns — asbestos-laden tiles at one school are failing — has simply become untenable to the educators.
But unquestionably, a lot of money is at stake.
The total cost of the multiple projects is estimated at $237 million, with property taxes funding $121 million through a bond measure. The bond needs a supermajority of 60% “yes” votes to pass. If approved, two schools on the bond will receive 80% matching funds from the Department of Defense. The tax rate is expected to be around $1.24 per 1,000 assessed property value, which is 30 cents less than what taxpayers in the district were paying in 2022, before the previous bond measure sunsetted.
A year ago, a ballot measure for a $184 million bond failed overwhelmingly, with only 45% of voters supporting it. School officials reduced the cost and scope of the projects in this new measure.
Crescent Harbor Elementary, Oak Harbor Elementary, Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center and HomeConnection are dealing with issues of overcrowding, lack of storage and the poor condition of the school buildings. The bond would enhance safety at all schools in the district by establishing a single-point of entry where visitors are visible to employees in the front office and must be buzzed in. Security projects would cost a total of $12.3 million.
The district is choosing to rebuild instead of renovate because new buildings have a longer lifespan and reduced maintenance costs.
Crescent Harbor Elementary
If the bond passes, 80% of the cost to rebuild the aging and undersized Crescent Harbor Elementary will be covered by the Department of Defense. School buildings date back to 1958 and 1970 and would cost $13.5 million to rebuild.
Currently, the school simply does not have enough classrooms in the building to accommodate all students. Eight classes are in portables, some of which were built in 1975. Portables are buildings that are meant to temporarily provide additional classroom space. They have no bathrooms or running water and are colder than the main buildings. Students often wear winter coats in the classroom to stay warm.
There are 24 portables in total across all elementary schools in the district. The entire third grade class at Crescent Harbor, which has 100 kids, has most of their classes in portables. Kids have to walk in the wind and rain to access the bathrooms in the main building.
“The time out of class is considerable,” Crescent Harbor Principal Kate Valenzuela said.
Third grade teacher Deb Rusnack said she feels somewhat isolated from the rest of the school and that a lack of running water is inconvenient for arts and craft activities. She keeps baby wipes on hand.
Crescent Harbor’s main building was built in 1970 with no internal walls to separate classes. Partitions have since been put up, but they are not soundproof. Some classrooms have as many as two doors leading outside, as well as doors to neighboring classrooms, which is a safety concern.
In the event of a lockdown, some teachers have to secure as many as five doors. Office staff at Crescent Harbor and the two other schools cannot directly see visitors who want to be buzzed in at the front door.
The new school building would be built on the same property, just farther away from the road. The students would stay in the current buildings and portables and learning would not be disrupted.
Hand-in-Hand and HomeConnection
Eighty percent of the cost to rebuild the school that houses both Home Connection and Hand-in Hand Early Learning Center will be funded by the Department of Defense if the ballot measure is successful. The building also holds the office space for teachers of Oak Harbor Virtual Academy. The school was built in 1961 and would cost $14 million to rebuild.
On the day the Whidbey News-Times visited the building, school had been canceled for the day because of a nearby water main break, resulting in the building having no running water.
Hand-in-Hand is a preschool program that serves about 250 children. Roughly 60% are students with special learning needs who have individualized education plans, according to Principal Shane Evans.
The school has four speech pathologists but only one classroom to work with students. There is only one room for four occupational therapists. In some preschool classrooms, teachers have set up makeshift partitions to create space for individual student work.
Evans said there is a wait list for preschool kids who qualify for special services. The school would have to add an entire classroom to accommodate them, which there is currently no room for.
Sarah Foy, communications officer for the district, said early learning needs in the community have skyrocketed since the pandemic because so many childcare centers closed and weren’t able to reopen. She pointed to the importance of quality preschools in drawing young families to the area.
The other half of the building is dedicated to HomeConnection, which offers about 170 classes to around 250 home-schooled children.
“I don’t think everybody understands why homeschooling families need a building,” Evans said. “Well, they’re technically not fully home-schooled. They’re partnering with the school district to educate their children.”
All of the HomeConnection classrooms are used for multiple purposes. For example, one classroom is used for a science class, a woodworking class and a small engine repair class. Classes are held in the library due to lack of space. Schools are required to have a break room for staff, but the break room is currently being used as a classroom. Children in kindergarten through fifth grade must have adults with them when taking classes in the building, so the school also must provide a space for them.
The new building would be to the north of Olympic View Elementary on Regatta Drive and be built far enough away from the street that it hopefully would not contribute to traffic on the road. The new building will have an enclosed playground and no access to the street. The current building has no space for indoor recess during inclement weather.
Oak Harbor Elementary
The bond would fund the rebuilding of Oak Harbor Elementary on the fields at Fort Nugent Park to address overcrowding issues at the other schools. The cost to build the new school would be 7% state funded and cost $81.2 million.
Only one building on the Oak Harbor Elementary campus will be torn down; the remaining buildings will be utilized for the community’s early learning and child care needs.
The school’s main building was built in 1948. The floors are “bumpy and wavy,” said Christina Merritt, principal of Oak Harbor Elementary. When floor or wall tiles crack, a sealant is used instead of replacing them because of asbestos. The sealant cannot be used when kids are in school because of fumes. Tape is used to cover the cracks in the walls and floors, and children are taught to avoid the areas.
The building does not have “reasonable” accessibility for those with physical disabilities, Merritt said. To go downstairs, people have to go outside in order to avoid steps; the staircases are not up to code because of their steepness and lack of landings.
Merritt said parents often don’t want to send their kids to Oak Harbor Elementary after seeing the poor condition of the building, which is contributing to overcrowding in the other elementary schools.
Susan Briddell has taught at Oak Harbor Elementary for 30 years. She teaches kids who need extra support in reading in a room for multiple small group interventions. The room is split into cubicles to try to dampen the sound of up to six groups of kids learning at the same time. Additionally, she said that classrooms, some of which which only have two electrical outlets, are not made for modern learning.
Merritt said an updated facility with no safety concerns and enough space and outlets would make her job, and all of the teachers’ jobs, easier.
“When the environment has all the things that teachers need, it just makes them better at their job,” Merritt said. “And I can focus on just helping with the instruction part, not spending so much time on focusing on troubleshooting.”
If the bond passes, funds would not be collected until 2024. The schools would be built one at a time, with the first going up in two to three years. More information on the measure can be found at ohsd.net/Page/9832.