In Our View: Approve School Bond

Vancouver Public Schools has facts to justify request for $458 million measure

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By sending an ambitious bond proposal to voters, leaders of Vancouver Public Schools are attempting to position their district for a robust future. The Columbian’s Editorial Board recommends that voters approve the measure in a special election that will conclude Feb. 14.

As always, this is merely a recommendation. The Columbian trusts that voters will examine the issues surrounding the bond measure and develop an understanding of the intentions behind the $458 million request. The same can be said for numerous levy and bond requests from local school districts in the special election, for which ballots are scheduled to be mailed today. But while several districts are asking for support from voters, the size of Vancouver’s request warrants particular attention.

Undoubtedly, a desire to raise $458 million spread over about 20 years is eye-opening. But officials make a strong case that the funds are necessary and that the district is a good steward of the public’s money. “Fundamentally, this is about ensuring that each and every student in Vancouver Public Schools has access to future-ready learning environments,” superintendent Dr. Steve Webb told The Columbian’s Editorial Board (video is at columbian.com/videos). “These future-ready learning environments are about ensuring that our kids are prepared for post-secondary success.”

The key is that Vancouver officials have compelling facts to support that assertion. The bond measure would provide funding for two new elementary schools and a home for iTech Preparatory, a science and technology magnet school. Vancouver currently has 2,000 students in classes in portable buildings or in areas that were not intended for instruction, such as cafeterias. Overcrowding is expected to be exacerbated in coming years as the district grows and as a statewide movement to reduce class sizes intensifies.

The bond measure also would fund the reconstruction of eight existing schools, and Webb notes that the median age of those schools is 58 years. “We’ve come in and made some improvements, but they’re tired schools,” he said. “They need to be torn down and rebuilt and, frankly, it’s more cost effective to build new than it is to come in and modernize.”

Cost effectiveness is what makes this the ideal time for officials to pursue a bond measure. With interest rates now at historically low levels, the cost of construction is destined to increase in the future. District officials estimate that passage of the bond would increase property taxes within the district by about 9 cents per $1,000 in assessed value — about $20 a year on a $225,000 home. And when the district’s current bond expires in 2021, property taxes will decline. “I will say this to our community: There’s a window of opportunity with historic lows in the bond market,” Webb said. “What that means is, just like your mortgage interest, you get more for less.”

In considering the bond, the most pertinent fact is that education spending must be regarded as an investment. In addition to providing enhancements that pay dividends for students, first-rate schools also make a community attractive for employers and employees. Sunset Magazine has deemed Vancouver the Northwest’s best value for residents and has noted the quality of the city’s public schools.

That said, the measure will be a tough sell — but a doable one — for district officials. Bond measures require 60 percent support from voters, and turnout must equal or exceed 40 percent of the number who voted in the last general election. The Columbian recommends that voters support Vancouver Public Schools’ bond request.