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Spokane schools may ask voters to approve middle schools construction bond in November

FILE - The administration and commons portion of the new Ferris High School, which opened in September 2014.Voters may be asked to pass another bond - this time perhaps $480 million - in November to build or remodel a half dozen middle schools. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - The administration and commons portion of the new Ferris High School, which opened in September 2014.Voters may be asked to pass another bond - this time perhaps $480 million - in November to build or remodel a half dozen middle schools. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Public Schools officials are exploring the possibility of placing a major bond measure on the November ballot that would move up the timetable for building three new middle schools and replacing three others.

“I think there’s a lot of support,” Superintendent Shelley Redinger said Monday. “Right now there’s a window of opportunity.”

The move would break with a long tradition of holding the district’s bond rate to no more than $1.96 per thousand dollars of assessed property value. And it would leave homeowners paying for two bonds during the next three years as the bond voters passed in 2015 continues until 2021.

Yet school administrators shared with the school board recently a list of compelling reasons for the district to move up its bond timetable.

They include increased state support for schools, falling local tax rates and a chance to obtain city land for three new middle schools.

“We’re fortunate that we have this moment in time,” Mark Anderson, the district’s associate superintendent for school support services, said last week as he updated the board on land-use and bond options that would ease overcrowding at elementary schools.

“We’re packed,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to get some breathing room for moving sixth-graders for educational reasons as well as space-consideration reasons.”

Those objectives were clarified last June, when the board voted to move sixth-graders into middle schools in response to increasing enrollment and state mandates for full-day kindergarten and class-size reduction from kindergarten through third grade.

The window of opportunity comes in the form of last year’s McCleary court decision, which drastically increases state support for public education. Currently, local homeowners are paying $3.79 per thousand dollars of assessed value into the Spokane Public Schools General Fund.

Next year, that will drop to $1.50, as the McCleary decision will spread the school tax burden statewide.

During last week’s special meeting, Anderson offered several bond scenarios, with varying costs, timetables and goals. He also identified three potential sites for new middle schools and several library options in partnership with the city of Spokane.

Board members appeared to favor Anderson’s “Scenario 2,” a six-year, $480 million bond, though its cost and scope are subject to change.

It calls for three new middle schools, replacements for Glover, Sacajawea and Shaw middle schools, and several smaller projects.

Those include a cafeteria and commons at Lewis and Clark High School, a replacement for Balboa Elementary School and a remodel at the Libby Center.

Potential middle school sites include properties adjacent to Mullan Road Elementary School on the South Hill; the intersection of North Foothills Drive and Perry; and the parking lot south of Joe Albi Stadium.

Availability of the latter site would depend on what happens to Albi. The proposal also includes two options: a downtown stadium with expansion of the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex, or modernizing the existing stadium.

However, the Spokane Public Facilities District, which operates Albi Stadium, has yet to determine whether a downtown site is viable.

Also, the city of Spokane must approve any long-term leases or land swaps with the district, along with any joint use of city libraries.

That’s a lot of moving parts, and there’s one more: the calendar. In order to place any bond on the November ballot, the proposal must be approved by all parties and submitted to the elections office by mid-August.

Some board members worried that a November date would lessen chances for passage. Others said that if it failed, the bond could be resubmitted for a February 2019 election.

All agreed that there was no time to waste, and that members would quickly gauge community support.

They also are seeking initial feedback to the scenarios from Greater Spokane Incorporated, the Citizen Advisory Committee, Boundary Committee and Grade-Configuration Committee.

This year, the overall Spokane Public Schools tax rate is $8.46 per thousand of assessed home value.

For the owner of a house assessed at $200,000, that’s an annual bill of $1,692.

Even if Spokane voters approved a new $480 million bond option, the new state schools funding formula rendered by the McCleary decision brings the tax rate for Spokane homeowners to $6.78 per thousand dollars of assessed value in 2019. For 2020 and 2021, the rate would be $7.08 per thousand in assessed value.

However, taken separately, the Spokane Public Schools Debt Service Fund assessment – or bonds – would rise from $1.87 per thousand in 2018 to $2.78 during the next three years.

For comparison, Anderson offered a scenario that delayed the bond until 2021. Because of a projected increased construction costs, it would total $575 million.

Homeowners would see a sharp drop in assessment to $5.96 per thousand in 2019 and slightly lower rates in succeeding years than in the other scenario.

However, reduction of K-3 class sizes would be delayed. Also, the opportunity might be lost for obtaining land from the city for middle-school sites, he said.