Everett school leaders mull next steps on bond, overcrowding

Officials are in this position after voters did not approve a $330.6 million bond measure in February.

EVERETT — Leaders of the Everett School District know they need to ask voters again to pay for a new high school.

But they are not sure when.

And the school board knows it must deal with overcrowding at Jackson High School until a new campus opens.

But it is not sure how.

On Tuesday, the five directors continued their search for answers, hashing out advantages and disadvantages of various responses to the separate but inextricably linked challenges.

They considered the benefit of voting on a bond next April and the cost of waiting until maybe 2020. They pondered solutions for Jackson, such as adding portables or going year-round. Redrawing high school boundaries is an option, too, though it would disrupt lives of hundreds of students who would be shifted from their current high school to a new one.

In the end, directors made no decisions. They did commit to involving people who live in the district more deeply in the conversation before reaching any conclusions.

“I think at the end of the day we recognize that we need the community to be well-informed and to understand the purpose of each project in the bond. That takes time to do that,” board president Caroline Mason said following the two-hour work session.

School board members are in this position after voters did not approve a $330.6 million bond measure on the February ballot. It garnered support from 55.4 percent of voters but needed at least 60 percent to pass.

Of the total, $216.8 million was penciled in for construction of a new high school, the district’s fourth, to open in 2022.

The measure also contained money to construct new classrooms at eight elementary schools, acquire property for a future elementary campus, modernize the Everett High School cafeteria building and add specialized STEM and vocational programs at Everett, Cascade and Jackson high schools.

In Tuesday’s huddle, school directors focused first on why the bond measure didn’t pass, what it will take to win enough support the next time and when exactly to try.

They believe one reason for its defeat is that the need for a new high school was well understood in Mill Creek where the effects of overcrowding at Jackson High School are most directly experienced but not well enough elsewhere. Going forward, they said they must do a better job informing voters on the consequences for all three high schools.

“We have to do a better job of saying it doesn’t matter where your child goes in the district, we need your support” for the entire district, director Pam LeSesne shared with her colleagues.

Probably the most significant reason for February’s failure was voters’ fatigue with taxes, they concluded.

Ballots went out right before the 2018 property tax bills arrived with stunning increases for homeowners as a result of higher assessed values, a new property tax for Sound Transit, other local taxes and a huge increase imposed by state lawmakers to help pay the state’s share of education.

While voters did back the Everett School District’s four-year enrichment levy, not enough of them also embraced the bond.

“I think we underestimated the regional and statewide narrative going on,” said director Ted Wenta, who said the outlook “could be more volatile” in the next couple election cycles.

Looking ahead, the board discussed the possibility of revising the bond to deal primarily with the high school and then going back to the ballot in either April or November of 2019 or in April 2020.

Mike Gunn, executive director of district facilities and operations, told them timing will affect when a new high school could open.

If a bond is passed in April 2019, the opening date is projected to be 2023, he said. If it occurred on one of the later election dates, it would be 2024, he said.

In their discussions, school board members expressed concern that going back to the ballot in a year is not enough time to adequately engage the community and educate the electorate on the purpose of a bond. On the other hand, the longer they wait, the more likely the cost of constructing a new high school will rise and the political landscape could become more complicated.

And waiting until 2020 could compel them to undertake more aggressive measures to counter overcrowding at Jackson.

There were 2,137 students enrolled there at the start of the school year, 378 more than its capacity, according to district information. By comparison, Cascade High School was nearly at capacity and Everett High School well under when the year began.

Directors contemplated three options Tuesday.

One calls for adding 13 portables to the 17 on campus. They would be added as needed through 2024, according to district estimates.

Another approach is to redraw high school boundaries. Under this scenario, there would be a shift of about 375 students from Jackson to Cascade and 375 from Cascade to Everett. Busing might be needed to get students to their new campuses.

A third option is changing the high school schedule. This could lead to operating Jackson as a year-round school, with staggered start times or double-shifting.

None of the directors seemed keen on messing with schedules or redrawing boundaries. They didn’t think many other people would be either. Making such consequences of overcrowding clearer is going to be an important element of any future bond campaign, they said.

“We need to be a little more transparent,” Wenta said after the meeting. “I think we undersold the pain.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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