Art Jarvis argued the case for the Peninsula School District’s second ask for a major capital funding bond in less than a year.
Peninsula School District Interim Superintendent Art Jarvis, Ph.D., addressed a standing room only crowd at Blend Wine Shop in Key Center Jan. 3 to describe and defend the school capital bond issue to be put to voters Feb. 12.
Jarvis, who has worked 54 years in education including 31 as a superintendent, was hired after the failure of a PSD bond in April 2018. That 20-year, $220 million measure would have financed school construction and renovation throughout the district. A supermajority of 60 percent voter approval was needed but, according to the Pierce County Auditor, out of 23,068 votes cast the bond lost by 240, or 1.04 percent.
The Key Peninsula voted against it by 206 votes.
Jarvis said he reassessed the district’s immediate needs and recommended the school board offer a second bond issue to voters specifically to build two new elementary schools and rebuild two existing elementary schools in Gig Harbor and on the KP to relieve overcrowding and replace aging infrastructure.
The new bond issue of $198,550,000 would be collected at an estimated rate of 79 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
“Right now your tax rate on the (existing) levy and your tax rate on the old bond from 2003 is $2.32 per thousand,” Jarvis said. “In 2020, we pay off the 2003 bond, the levy rate goes down to $1.50 and the rate will be $2.29 combined or less.”
“We have two entire schools of kids and teachers in portables because we’re out of space.”—Art Jarvis
Jarvis said there are 66 portable classrooms in use at PSD elementary schools and that there is no room for more. “We’re over 1,000 kids beyond the capacity of our elementary schools. Another way to look at that is we have two entire schools of kids and teachers in portables because we’re out of space.”
Increased enrollment following a slump in home buying after the Great Recession 10 years ago, combined with smaller class sizes recently mandated by the Legislature, have contributed to overcrowding. “We had the biggest kindergarten class coming in this fall that we’ve seen in 25 years, right on the heels of the last two classes that were the biggest in the last 20 years,” Jarvis said.
After evaluating the needs of the district, Jarvis said the priority was to house students in permanent school buildings. “I’m not trying to tell people that we’re going to double-shifting or that your kids are unsafe…A great teacher in an old school can still do some wonderful stuff, but compared to what we could do with an appropriate building it’s not even close.”
“The painful part is we had to leave a bunch of needs on the table,” he said. “This district, contrary to some rumors, has spent good money on maintenance, but certainly can’t keep up with the needs of this aging fleet of schools.”
Board member Marcia Harris added later, “We reconstituted the audit and finance committee and brought outside people on as an oversight committee that reported back to the board and the public on how the money is being spent. The commitment from the school board is that we want that accountability.”
The plan is to build one new school on district property off Harbor Hill Drive (between Costco and the YMCA), a second at a site to be determined, and to rebuild both Artondale and Evergreen Elementary schools where they are without closing them down or moving students during construction.
“The commitment from the school board is that we want that accountability.”—Marcia Harris
“There are eight permanent classrooms and six portables at Evergreen for a total of 14,” Jarvis said. “They will have 18, including 10 more permanent classes than they have now. Evergreen is going to continue to grow these next 10, 15 years, and we’re trying to build not for the minimum but for as much as we can do.
“Somewhere on the other side in Gig Harbor we’re going to be doing some boundary changes because of the growth, but not here (on the KP),” he said, referring to school attendance areas within the district.
“Elementary school No. 10, that elegant name, is still up in the air. We own the Bujacich (Road NW) site (on Swede Hill opposite the McCormick Forest Park), but there are some issues, like no sewer connection. We’re trying to move very carefully without driving up the price of land if we have to buy (a new site).”
Audience members raised numerous concerns about the bond, starting with the price.
“Some of the people who are opposed to the bond say it can be done for around $100 million,” said one attendee.
“You cannot do what I just described for $100 million,” Jarvis said. “Once in a while, somebody says to me ‘I don’t want you to spend that much money on a school, I want it cheap.’ And the answer is you can’t do a school cheap and you should never do a school cheap, because cheap means you cut the codes or the materials or the safety or something.”
Others asked about using existing buildings instead of constructing new ones.
“We didn’t find anything,” Jarvis said. “I looked, for example, at the district office. If necessary we could lease office space but that building itself is so old, we’d spend as much money bringing it up to code to turn it into a school.”
Another question was raised about the wisdom of using a bond instead of a levy.
“I’ve had a long career and I’ve used a lot of capital levies; it’s the wrong tool for this,” Jarvis said. “A bond issue says we’re all going to pay for a number of years, including the next owner of that house and the one that’s being built, and people will share in that cost over time.
“The other problem is with a six-year levy you get one-sixth of the money each year for six years. You have to wait to get enough money to do the project and by the time you waited the cost of that construction has gone up so much you’ve actually lost ground.
“I’d love to have a levy at 50 percent (required voter approval) instead of a bond at 60, but there’s not enough money there to do the work that needs to be done and we’ve got a lot of work after this round, so we can’t afford to be further behind when we finish,” Jarvis said. “That’s opinion, but it’s opinion based on experience.”