Orcas School District to seek $8 million bond

The following was submitted by the Orcas Island School Board.

The Orcas Island School Board has passed a resolution to place an $8 million school bond proposition on the Feb. 2017 ballot. Until the resolution passed, there was no bond offering. Now that there is, we’d like to talk to you.

Getting to this new bond has been an almost yearlong process. First, some history: For almost a decade, the OISD has been struggling to update and replace deteriorating aging buildings and systems. In 2010, a $35 million bond was placed before the voters for a comprehensive program that would have addressed all of the needs of the district.

It did not pass. Subsequent to that, a $27m bond was put on the ballot. The school board removed some items to lower the bond amount. That bond did not pass. It should be noted that both of these bonds were put forth in the midst of an historic recession. It was a tough sell no matter the time; it was an impossible sell during a financial meltdown. Finally, with the assistance of Mahlum in designing building renovation rather than replacement, and because of a “Way Forward” group – an $11.9m bond passed in 2012. The beautiful result of this bond is evident to all who visit our district.

When one reduces programming needs from a $35m bond to an $11.9m bond…a lot is left out. As the OISD worked with the “Way Forward” group, the hope was to bring back what was left out in phases. In this new bond are elements of the original bond that were left untouched. Those include: renovation of the Old Gym, a music room, and a track and new field.

Now some more recent history: Last year, the OISD was offered a $1m donation to build a track. The donation was specifically for a track, and the only contingency was that it be built for competition (meaning it could not be a four lane, but rather a six lane track). This was a remarkable and incredibly generous donation. This would be an asset not only for the OISD, but the community at large.

With this donation, the OISD re-examined its existing fields. They are in dire need of reconditioning or replacement. If we were to undertake a new track, it would not fit where the football field now resides. Moving the football field would allow us to build a brand new, better field facility. But there were expenses attached to building a new field. Here is what we were looking at: a new grass field (with striping for football and soccer), relocating bleachers, new/moved backstops for baseball, new fencing, water and electrical rough in for future concession and restroom for uses, asphalt pathway, and related storm water detention landscaping.

While most of the cost of track could be paid for by the donation, to redo the field as described above, and finish the track, we would need funding: possibly a bond. If we were going to go out for a new bond then this seemed like opportunity to look at those projects that had been left off the table in the previous bonds. It also made us examine systems requiring immediate attention in the district. (The high school, for example, needs a new heating system. Both the elementary and high schools need painting and new flooring.)

The school board decided it was time to go out for a bond. And for over six months, the school board has discussed options and scope. Our hope had been to keep the bond amount down to somewhere between $5-8M. After defining scope, we opened up the discussion to the public. But as meetings developed, scope began to change – other components were added, and the list of wants began to grow.

After two well-attended meetings, the OISD also conducted surveys of staff and the public at large as to the priorities of for the bond. An interesting dynamic arose: at public meetings, there was little support for the new track/field project. In anonymous surveys, the new track/field rose up in the order of priorities. Finally, we asked Liz LeRoy, project manager to bring specialists to the district in order to ascertain real numbers.

When all was said and done, the projects we had hoped to accomplish for $5-$8m were now costing almost $15 million. On November 7, the school board met to determine a potential bond amount. After much discussion, the board identified these projects: High School: heating system replacement at a cost of $1,612,204; High School: water system improvements costing $964,053; Campus wide: ADA electronic doors, costing $100,000; New Music/Multi-purpose room at a cost of $1,358,637; New Field/Track ($2,360,000 subtract $1M from donation) cost: $1.3m; Elementary School: Interior finish upgrades costing $500,000; Old Gym: Exterior improvements, locker rooms and bathrooms renovation, equipment, refurbish flooring at a cost of $1,428,108; High School: Interior finishes and vestibule at a cost of $500,000; Waldron Island school: Interior improvments costing $47,600; Site: School Road improvements, costing $127,499 (all costs above include “soft” costs), for a total of $7,998,002.

That is how we got to the $8m bond for February. Should the bond pass, the board will be relieved to be able to repair/address systems such as the heating for the high school. But the board is also excited about the prospects derived from three projects on the list: repair of the Old Gym and the new additions of a music room and a track/field. The Old Gym is the heart of the campus – literally and figuratively. With this new bond we will be able to update many of its features, without losing its character and defining features. We hope that with these updates to the gym will go on to serve school athletics, Friday roller skating, Orcas Park and Rec programs, and school concerts for years to come.

Speaking of concerts, a new music room will address one of the unmet needs from the last bond offerings. Currently, the elementary music classes, and strings are held in the “Marilyn Anderson Room.” Our music program is one of the best in the state, consistently winning at competition levels. So, not only will a new, expanded room support a superlative and growing music program, but it will also free up much need space in the elementary.

Finally, there is the new track and field. This project was also dropped from previous bonds. Interestingly enough, after looking at ALL the surveys of community, staff and school board, the interest in a new track and field ranked the highest between the new construction projects.

With this new space come new opportunities. First is how it may impact our students. In our county, Orcas Island School district is the ONLY district without a track/field program; both Lopez and San Juan Island have one. On the mainland, most other districts also have a track/field team. The addition of a track and field opens up the exciting prospect of a new competitive sport, with a profundity of schools with which we can compete. We are a school rich in team, and lacking in individualized sports. Many of our students would rather participate differentiated sports, some with special needs may also succeed better in individualized competition. A track/field program allows all children to be engaged in competitive athletics.

Additionally, we hope our friends at OIPRD will see this as an opportunity to expand its offerings to the community. SJI Parks and Rec, Anacortes Parks and Rec, and many other Park and Rec districts throughout the country, have vigorous youth track and field programs. Parks and Rec also has the opportunity to develop its adult offerings. A stable; well-lit, safe walking surface will encourage more exercise by our older community members. All ages, from the very young to the more senior among us, can enjoy this new track facility. Finally, as we look to creating a new field, rest assured existing baseball/fields will not be lost. In fact, there may be even more space for practice/game fields.

With two new projects (the Music room and Track/Field) come attendant costs for maintenance. The school board is committed to stewarding these new additions, as it has with the most recent school improvements. The maintenance, for example, of the track amortizes to $7500 a year over its first 35 years. But if these new facilities necessitate more personnel, then we will make those adjustments.

Finally, what of cost? How much will this tax you, the homeowner? When you see $1.3M for a track/field, or $1.4m for a music room – those are big numbers; but when you break down the entire bond issue it works out to roughly 0.28 per $1000 of valuation or an annual cost of $140 for a $500k home. And the $1.3M track/field component becomes (1.3/8.0 x $140) = $22.75 per year (for that $500k property owner).

We have heard from a few among you that we are pitting one project on this bond against the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our school board has one commitment: to meet the needs of our students and staff. We spend hours weighing countless options, listening to ALL points of view, all in the effort to make our schools outstanding – today and tomorrow. We hope that you know that when we come to you, the community, for help that you trust that we understand the issues and do not put forth such a request lightly. We have all been through a long, divisive election season. It is heartbreaking to think that this bond would bring such division to our community. This is not about a track/field. It is not about a music room, an HVAC system, or new flooring.

It is about providing the best possible educational environment for our children so that they may have the best possible foothold in the complicated future they all will most certainly face. We hope you will support us in making that happen. And if you have more questions about the bond, please contact Superintendent Eric Webb at ewebb@orcas.k12.wa.us.