Walla Walla superintendent mulls putting school bond on 2011 ballot

WALLA WALLA -- About halfway through his first year leading Walla Walla Public Schools, Superintendent Mick Miller is facing a challenge.

During the next few months, Miller will help the school board decide whether 2011 is the year to seek a high school bond.

Although residents still might have fresh memories of passing the $19.5 million bond in 2007 to rebuild Edison Elementary, the timing could be right to fix the city's public high schools.

Improving Walla Walla High School and Lincoln Alternative High School is an idea that was being considered before Miller arrived. Miller joined the district in July with a comprehensive high school facilities study and a broader facilities study already in place.

Low interest rates and low building fees also could make it a prime time to seek a construction initiative, Miller said. But whether voters are ready to commit to another project ultimately will guide the board's actions.

Miller will spend several weeks reaching out to the community -- teachers, current and past students, staff, residents and local leaders -- to both explain the high schools needs and hear feedback.

The "Educate, Listen and Plan" effort will take Miller to all the district's schools, to public meetings and time with other groups.

Being new to the community hasn't kept Miller from growing intimately familiar with a failed bond proposal from 2006 that would have comprehensively addressed the district's facilities needs for years out, including the high school.

"We know it was a big loss," he said.

The massive proposal, although a failure at the ballot box, nevertheless yielded a positive return. From it, the district learned community members wanted to prioritize projects and address them one at a time. When rebuilding Edison emerged as the public's top need, it was presented in a bond issue, and passed.

District leaders also quietly, and controversially, took care of another building in urgent need of replacement -- the support services and transportation building -- without turning to a bond proposal.

The district used $3.4 million in state matching dollars from the Edison project to cover the cost of establishing the Southeast Washington Transportation Cooperative at 1162 Entley St. That generated more state matching money, worth 90 percent of the project, that covered the cost of building a support services facility next door.

Addressing the district's high school needs -- primarily Wa-Hi, which serves about 1,800 students -- was the project next in line to address.

That Wa-Hi is in need of repair is unquestionable, Miller said. The school, built in 1963, needs new heating and cooling, more space in classrooms, and better wiring to meet today's technologically driven learning. That's a short list of the school's many needs.

"It served us well for 50 years," he said.

Early planning shows the potential of seeking a bond to improve Wa-Hi, and using state matching dollars to rebuild Lincoln. Rebuilding Lincoln rather than remodeling the old building where it is housed was one of the recommendations of the High School Facilities Task Force, which met in 2007 and 2008.

Miller also said he believes keeping one main high school, rather than breaking Wa-Hi down into two smaller schools, would be the smartest investment.

"It's really cool what you can do in a big school," he said.

Miller left the Deer Park School District for Walla Walla just as Deer Park High School was being rebuilt. Miller said one tough thing about the move was keeping his daughter, a freshman at Wa-Hi this year, from studying at a newly built high school.

Yet if not sound in structure, Wa-Hi is robust in programs and course offerings. Its academic and extracurricular choices include many advanced placement classes and recognized clubs and activities. Miller can envision those programs in modern, state-of-the-art facilities.

But Miller still wants to hear what the public has to say. If the overwhelming message is to not seek a bond this year, he will listen, he said.

"We don't want to fall flat on our face," he said. "But we don't want to bury our head in the sand, either."

Miller is also thinking long range. In 2012, the district will be asking residents to support its maintenance and operations levy, which covers general expenses to run schools. And conditions for borrowing may not be as good in 2013, which could be the next time to seek a bond if 2011 is too soon.

The listening campaign may also reveal how damaging it was to use $1.6 million left over from the Edison project rather than return it to taxpayers.

The board voted to use the money for meeting other facility needs, including a radon mitigation system at Blue Ridge Elementary and improvements at Pioneer Middle School that were offset with energy efficiency grants.

But is 2011 too soon to ask voters to fix the city's high schools? And if the timing is right, what vision will most suit the high school's current and future needs?

"We really want to hear what people have to say," Miller said.

Superintendent Mick Miller can be reached at 526-6714 or at mmiller@wwps.org.