Pasco residents could be asked in less than a year to vote on a bond that may be twice the size of the $46.8 million they approved three years ago.
District administrators laid out during a recent school board meeting a list of projects, including two new elementary schools and a replacement of Stevens Middle School, determined as the highest priority by an appointed task force.
All told those projects would cost $137 million to complete, with $92 million of that covered by taxpayers.
The board took no action on the matter and is expected to revisit it over the coming weeks and months. But district officials also presented a timetable to put the bond to voters as soon as February 2017.
Ultimately, board member Aaron Richardson said, what matters is knowing what the community wants and would support on a ballot.
“We can come up with great plans, but if we can’t get 60 percent support, this doesn’t matter,” Richardson said, referring to the 60 percent supermajority voter approval required for bonds.
The 24-member Pasco Facilities Task Force made the project recommendations in the fall. The elementary school projects, estimated to cost about $31 million each, would largely address the need for space as the district’s enrollment annually far outstrips the capacity of its buildings.
Replacement of Stevens was recommended over renovation because of the overall age and deficiencies of the central Pasco school’s building. That project would cost $63.4 million.
$2.8 million Support Services facility improvements
$30.9 million Elementary School No. 16
$3.7 million safety and health upgrades
$63.4 million replace Stevens Middle School
$30.9 million Elementary School No. 17
$2.5 million energy and security upgrades
$3.2 million land acquisition
Millions of dollars were also proposed for improving the district’s support services facilities, replacing HVAC systems, retrofitting schools with more secure entrance foyers and acquiring land for future schools.
The task force suggested that the district pursue a bond for all the projects as soon as possible. The estimated costs have already increased by about $20 million since they were recommended to the board — a result of rising construction costs as well as less-than-anticipated state matching dollars, district spokeswoman Leslee Caul said.
A $92 million bond would increase annual property taxes between 50 cents to 60 cents per $1,000 in assessed value, or $50 to $60 for a home valued at $100,000, district administrators said. Pasco property owners currently pay $2.39 per $1,000 in assessed value to cover past school bonds.
A bond that size also would tap much of the district’s remaining bond debt capacity of just over $116 million. That limit is determined by taking 5 percent of the total assessed property value within the district and subtracting bond debt already on the district’s books.
Bond capacity does fluctuate, however, as assessed values increase and the district pays off outstanding debt.
The most recent bond, which paid for three new elementary schools and several other projects, won’t be paid off for more than a decade.
Board member Amy Phillips, concerned about the debt another bond could place on the district, asked whether a capital projects levy is an option. Such a levy is approved by voters for up to six years and creates no debt but typically means high taxes, especially for districts such as Pasco dominated by residential rather than commercial property.
“That will be, in my opinion, more prohibitive on a vote,” said Trevor Carlson, managing director of PiperJaffray, a consulting firm that advises the district on bond planning.
We can come up with great plans, but if we can’t get 60 percent support, this doesn’t matter.
Aaron Richardson, Pasco School Board
Phillips also asked if it is feasible to build a fourth middle school rather than just replace an aging Stevens. She is concerned about whether the district’s sixth-graders, assigned to the district’s elementary schools beginning this academic year, would be better served in middle schools where they were previously.
Four middle schools would mean two could be assigned to each of the district’s high schools, making it easier for students to stay with friends and potentially increasing opportunities for collaboration between middle and high school teachers.
“Lots of other districts have feeder elementary schools, feeder junior highs,” she said.
Richardson also wants district administrators to explore that option, he said.
District parent Erin Hall Lewis told the board her conversations with others in the community lead her to believe any major construction project that only replaces current schools and doesn’t add any will be less likely to get voter support.
The district is planning to seek input on a bond in community meetings in the coming months. Richardson said he wants some guidance on what the board can do to get an idea of what the community would support.
Assistant Superintendent Sarah Thornton said the board is allowed to ask questions about what proposed projects residents consider the highest priority. The board can’t ask, however, what level of taxation voters are willing to accept.