Bond for new Stevens Elementary on February ballot

With ballots being mailed out this week for the Feb. 11 special election, it’s time for Aberdeen voters to consider the school district’s bond and levy measures.

“Bonds are for buildings, levies are for learning,” Superintendent Alicia Henderson said, citing a phrase often used to differentiate between the two funding sources.

New Stevens School Bond

The bond proposal before voters this year would allow the sale of up to $46.8 million in bonds for a new Stevens Elementary School to be built next to the old school in South Aberdeen. Students would remain at the old school until construction is completed, the district said.

The Eisenhower-era building opened in 1954 at a cost of $361,313, according to the district. It hasn’t seen major investment since an addition was completed in 1974, according to Stevens Elementary Principal Arnie Lewis.

Stevens is the last of the district’s five grade schools to be considered for a replacement or major remodel. It was scheduled for consideration in the early 2000s, but when Weatherwax High School burned in 2002, the plan for a new Stevens School was put on the shelf and the focus went toward building a new Aberdeen High.

Since the 1990s when the district began addressing problems with aging buildings, A.J. West (1994), Central Park (1995) and McDermoth (1998) have had major renovations. A new Robert Gray School opened in 2002.

The bond sale would be scheduled so that payments are interest-only until the high school is paid off in 2023. The total combined tax rate including bonds, levies and state school tax is projected to equal the 2017 rate of $6.78 per $1,000 of assessed value through 2025. After the high school is paid off, it will decrease to $5.57 per $1,000 of assessed value, according to the district.

“These important investments are structured so that taxpayers will not see an increase above 2017 rates,” said Henderson.

“We recognize that the price for a new grade school is significant, but we have done our due diligence, and must comply with state requirements for new school construction, ” Henderson said.

A facilities study concluded it would be more cost effective and result in a safer structure for students if the school is replaced, rather than renovated, according to the district.

Tsunami and earthquake preparedness will be part of the design and the district has received a commitment from FEMA for funding for an evacuation tower that could serve both Stevens and nearby Miller Junior High. The area is known for its soggy ground, but the design factors in soil conditions, the district said.

School authorities say maintenance issues are a chronic problem at the school. Heating has been a major issue, according to Lewis. The boiler is old and new water pipes line the hallway ceilings since asbestos prevents maintenance crews from working on old pipes that are hidden inside the ceiling, he explained.

There is even a drain pipe on the ceiling of one hallway and students can hear rain water going through it as it makes its way back outside, the principal said. The boiler issue means some classrooms are too cold for students and some classrooms are too hot, he said. The school also has issues with the roof leaking, poor drainage in outdoor play areas and a very small kitchen that staff uses to cook for almost 500 students, Lewis added.

Sixty-percent voter approval is needed for the bond measure to pass.

Enrichment Levy

School districts have long asked local voters to pass maintenance and operation levies to augment what the state pays for. In the aftermath of funding formula changes in the Legislature, those levies are now known as enrichment levies. Aberdeen’s is due to expire in 2020 and voters are being asked to extend it for four years at the current rate of $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation. The $3.2 million levy would fund programs and operations that enhance education, including music, athletics, technology and curriculum, according to the district.

“The enrichment levy is critical for day-to-day operations,” Henderson said.

Henderson explained that establishing the levy for the next four years, instead of the usual two years, is intended to provide certainty about tax rates at a time when the district is also requesting authority to build a new school.

“Aberdeen voters have supported this levy for many years,” said Henderson. “As we prepare to build a new school, the board wanted our community to have the assurance that we are not planning to ask for an increase in the enrichment levy,” she added.

The levy measure needs a simple majority to pass.