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With Highline High School Aging, District Goes Back To Voters To Ask For Rebuild

Courtesy Highline Public Schools
Highline Public Schools' website says this image shows a crack in the floor of a classroom at Highline High School.

Highline Public Schools leaders are once again pushing for a property tax hike to build several new school buildings. A similar measure fell just 215 votes short in November. 

District officials have sent a $376 million bond issue back to Highline School District voters who have until next Tuesday, Feb. 10 to return their ballots in a special election.

Though school officials have shaved $9 million from package proposed in November, their essential requests to property taxpayers remain the same: rebuild the creaking Highline High School, build two new middle schools, relocate an aging Des Moines Elementary to a new site and fund a slate of other repairs and upgrades.

'A Building Does Reach Its Limit'

Bond opponents are back for another round, too. They say the district's proposal is not only too expensive, but also ignores needs at other schools they feel are often overlooked — namely, the Evergreen and Tyee campuses.

But superintendent Susan Enfield says Highline Public Schools can't wait to tackle its most critical facilities needs. Not only are they needed to alleviate classroom overcrowding, but she says older buildings are at risk of "an infrastructure failure that would make those buildings uninhabitable for kids."

"The reality is a building does reach its limit. We have a couple of schools in Highline that are so old that we're going to keep pouring money into them to keep them up and running, but eventually, there is a chance that the HVAC system, something just will go down and we won't be able to do anything more," Enfield said.

"I can't predict if or when that happens," Enfield said. "My hope is that we pass our bond before we get to that space."

The Highline School District is also grappling with surging enrollments. So critical is the space shortfall, Enfield has said she can't rule out the possibility of sending students and teachers to school in "split-shifts" — half in the morning and half in the evening — if the district can't address its facilities needs. 

"Our actual growth [for this year] was 50 percent more than we projected. If that holds true for next year, we're out of space," Enfield said. "We're out of space before we even get to next year."

'Give Us A Bond We Can Afford'

Opponents don't dispute the need for critical repairs at some of the district's older schools. Des Moines Elementary, after all, is 89 years old, and Highline High School is 91 years old.

But Karen Steele, founder of the anti-bond group Sensible Spending on our Schools, says she believes the district could have found "more cost-effective solutions." She questions the need to build a new building on a new site for Des Moines Elementary and suspects the Highline High School project could be done for less than the estimated $159.6 million, two-thirds of which would be covered by the bond itself.

Steele says many in the district cannot afford the property tax hike. Nearly 70 percent of children in the Highline Public Schools receive free or reduced price meals. Steele says seniors with fixed incomes "are being taxed out of their homes."

"They believe in educating children — it's very important to us — but the problem is they can't afford it. When you have a district [electorate] that is not able to afford what you present to them, it's not fair to them," Steele said. "No one's saying, 'No bond.' They're saying give us one we can afford." 

Opponents also worry the district's proposal gives Evergreen and Tyee high schools short shrift. Evergreen alone needs more than $23 million worth of critical improvements, according to a 2013 evaluation. But the Evergreen campus will need to share $25 million from the bond with Tyee, which itself needs $3.3 million for improvements.

'A Broken System'

Highline voters will also decide whether to renew the district's current operating levy, which helps district officials cover the costs of basic educational expenses, like teachers and supplies. The three-year renewal needs a simple majority of the vote to pass.

But bond issues must meet a higher bar. Under Washington's state constitution, a school construction bond question requires the approval of 60 percent of a school district's voters in order to pass. In Highline, it also requires a minimum turnout of more than 12,500.

Last November, Highline's bond proposal garnered 59.2 percent of the vote — just short of the threshold needed to pass.

Enfield says it's a challenge to approach voters to ask for money, especially because she feels Washington's framework for new school construction "isn't a smart system."

"We shouldn't have to go out to convince our taxpayers to tax themselves further in order to get money to build schools. But unfortunately, we don't get money outright from Olympia to build schools," Enfield said. "The only way we access money to build schools from Olympia is through matching funds."

"It's a broken system," Enfield added, "but it's the only system we have."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.