Editor’s note – a previous version of this story had a $500,000 home listed as paying $115 toward the bond a year. The correct amount would be $140.
Faced with a combination of deteriorating buildings and a $1 million donation for a new track, the Orcas School Board passed a resolution to place an $8 million school bond on the Feb. 14 ballot.
“This is the perfect time because our buildings really need it,” said Superintendent Eric Webb. “We are struggling with heating issues in the high school as well as water and sewer issues. It’s a safety issue. There are students sitting in classrooms wearing coats.”
The cost is 28 cents per $1,000 of property valuation. For a $500,000 home that would be $140 per year. The bond would mature within a maximum of 20 years. A 60 percent super majority is needed to approve the measure.
History of campus overhaul
In 2010, a $35 million bond to update and replace aging building was placed before voters; it did not pass. After that, a $27 million bond was put on the ballot. The school board removed some items to lower the bond amount. That bond also did not pass.
Finally, with feedback from community members and assistance from the Seattle architecture firm Mahlum, an $11.9 million bond passed in 2012 to complete phase I and II of the renovations (it was decided that phase III would be addressed at a later date). Those updates were: a new band room in the middle school; a career technical education center; a new tech room; a library remodel; a new cafeteria building with culinary arts room and commercial kitchen; a new courtyard between the elementary and middle school; and a two-lane area for parents to drop off kids. An unexpected component of the project was a flood in the elementary school, which required new flooring, drywall and paint. The work, done by a mix of local and off-island contractors, was finished in the fall of 2015. The design principles included green practices, recycled materials and natural light.
“The response has been very positive,” said Webb. “People really like that we have modernized our buildings and are taking care of what we have. People are amazed at what we’ve done with the little amount of money we’ve had.”
The current bond will expire in 2032; for 2017 the rate is 31 cents per thousand and it gradually decreases each year. By 2032, it will be 25 cents.
Last year, the district was offered $1 million to build a track. The only contingency for the donation was that it be built for competition, meaning it has to be a six-lane track. In order to put the track in, the school must pay $1.3 million for installation and field repair.
“I love the fact that we have donors in the community who will put that kind of money towards our students,” said Webb. “It will allow us to use that money and really focus on improving the fields we have. I know that our students are going to use the track. We have physical education classes and students with special needs who can walk on it, not to mention our cross-country team and a track team in the future who will use it. “
Webb says the existing fields are in “dire need” of reconditioning or replacement, and if the school were to undertake a new track, it would not fit where the football field now resides. The track would go on the upper field right behind the high school, and the current football field would be redone and used for soccer, baseball, softball and football. The expenses for that undertaking are a new grass field (with striping for football and soccer), relocating bleachers, new backstops for baseball, new fencing, water and an electrical rough-in for future concession and restrooms, an asphalt pathway and related stormwater detention landscaping.
Webb noted that in San Juan County, Orcas Island School district is the only district without a track/field program. The facility would be available to anyone in the community, and he hopes that Orcas Island Park and Rec District will also use the track to offer more programming for all ages.
While the track cost is covered primarily by the $1 million donation, the other improvements require additional funding. So the school board decided that if a new bond was needed to complete the track, why not delve into phase III of the renovation plan. After defining the scope – which was set in the $5 to $8 million range – a series of community discussions were held this summer and surveys were sent out to staff and the public.
“After looking at all the surveys of the community, staff and school board, the interest in a new track and field ranked the highest between the new construction projects,” said Webb.
After examining the top needs from the community and school administration, the board – again with the assistance of Mahlum – identified the following projects for the bond:
High school: heating system replacement, $1,612,204; water system improvements, $964,053; interior finishes and vestibule, $500,000.
Campus-wide: Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant electronic doors, $100,000.
New music/multi-purpose room: $1,358,637.
New field/track: $2,360,000 total, minus $1 million donation equaling $1.3 million.
Elementary school: Interior finish upgrades, $500,000.
Old Gym: Exterior improvements, locker rooms and bathrooms renovation, equipment, refurbish flooring, $1,428,108.
Site: School road improvements, $127,499.
Waldron Island school: Interior improvements, $47,600.
During the community discussions this summer, there was some division between those who wanted a track and those advocating for a music room. Webb says this bond proposal includes both.
“Both the music room and the track are needed and will be impactful for students for years and years to come,” he said. “It is extremely important for the health and safety and modernization of our district as well as the addition of the track and music room for our students to move forward and learn and work in a wonderful and enriching environment. I am very excited about this bond. We’ve gotten input from the community and faculty and adjusted the proposal based on what they want.”
Opposition to the bond
“We support every item on the bond except for the track,” said Justin Paulsen, who wrote the opposition statement with Bea vonTobel for the voters’ pamphlet.
Instead of the track, they would rather the bond pay for a new administrative building, which they say is moldy and falling apart, installing energy efficient windows in the elementary school and redoing the high school parking lot.
“The school has a maintenance problem – and the problem is they don’t have any maintenance,” said Paulsen. “They need to maintain the assets they have and not add new assets. This requires a complete reset on how the school appropriates funds for maintaining capital assets.”
Paulsen estimates the cost of leaning the track and irrigating and aerating the fields is $20,000 to $40,000 per year – not the $7,500 budgeted by the school.
“They also haven’t budgeted for putting lights for the track in,” said vonTobel. “Older people will need that in order to use it.”
The two also say there are not enough children for a track and field team.
“There are simply not enough bodies available in our school district to keep adding events and sports,” said Paulsen. “The cross-country team is currently 100 percent volunteer – it’s not even a paid program. We have this great donation, which is fantastic, but there are unintended consequences to that gift.”
Added vonTobel, “The school is not prepared to deal with the expense of a track and field team. Next to football, it is the most expensive sport to equip.”
Paulsen and vonTobel say putting football, soccer, baseball and softball into one area is too cramped, and there are other land possibilities such as the land bank-owned property next to the new Buck Park off-leash dog area. Paulsen’s recommendation to the school board is to put critical campus items on a bond, and the track funding on a levy.
“Including the track on this bond could prevent it from passing,” he said. “We shouldn’t be basing our public school facilities’ decision on a donation. This is the last phase and we are still not addressing things from the original bond proposal that need to be done.”