A few dates will tell you why Tacoma must keep investing in its school buildings – and why its Feb. 12 bond measure needs passing.
The Tacoma School District is both old and very large, with 28,000 students in 53 schools. At any point in time, it has a cohort of vintage buildings slipping into decrepitude.
The district once kept its buildings renovated with periodic bond measures supported by the city’s taxpayers. But bond proposals in 2006 and 2009 failed to win the necessary 60 percent of the vote.
In 2010, voters did approve a $140 million capital levy – which required only 50 percent approval – to reconstruct two middle schools and an elementary, and tackle urgent projects across the district. But that measure didn’t come remotely close to keeping Tacoma’s schools in timely repair.
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The age of the schools to be replaced under Proposition 1 demonstrates the need.
Washington Elementary was built in 1906 – 107 years ago.
Grant Elementary was built in 1919; Wainright Elementary in 1922; Arlington, McCarver and Lyon elementaries in 1924. They date to the age of ink wells, biplanes and the Model T. They must be rebuilt for the digital 21st century.
Hunt Middle School and Wilson High date to 1957 and 1958, respectively – more than a half-century ago. Wilson was half-modernized with the 2001 bonds; Proposition 1 would finish the job for $40 million.
This isn’t just a matter of replacing old bricks and mortar with new bricks and mortar. At a certain point, old schools just can’t accommodate modern education.
Grant Elementary, for example, was built when electricity was newfangled; it has too few outlets, and its circuits are easily blown. It and several other aged schools aren’t equipped to accommodate children with disabilities. McCarver has had rat problems. The rodents have found their way in through holes in its old masonry.
The average age of the schools Proposition 1 would replace or renovate is 74.
The measure would raise $500 million in bonds backed by property taxes. That’s a big number but hardly out of line for a district this large. New elementaries cost about $30 million each; the replacement of Hunt would run $48 million.
Over 31 years, the bonds will cost homeowners an average of 33 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value – roughly $66 a year for a $200,000 house.
But there’s a twist: Without approval of the bonds, property taxes actually would rise faster in the next few years. That’s because Proposition 1 would allow the district to refinance projects from the 2010 capital levy, spreading their costs out over time.
Ultimately, this isn’t a question of pennies per $1,000. It’s a question of whether Tacoma wants its children to attend school in modernized classrooms. We think the answer should be yes.