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Bond failure needs to generate community debate

Cheney Free Press of Cheney, Washington

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In Our Opinion

With the county's certification of the Feb. 10 special election last Wednesday, Feb. 25, the Cheney School District's nearly $44.8 million construction bond for expanding and remodeling the high school has come up short of the needed 60 percent majority for passage. The bond received 3,712 yes votes, 58.43 percent, which according to school district officials and bond supporters is about 100 votes shy of passage.

With an eye to possibly remaining the bond in April, the district's school board accepted extended public input at its regular meeting Feb. 25 at Sal-nave Elementary School. With 150-200 people in attendance, it was a good start to hopefully a more involved public discussion than previously staged prior to the special election.

It shouldn't be the last attempt by the school board to garner public comment. To that extent, the district has published a link to an online survey on its website to gather more input, and we encourage all voters to take the survey, pro and con.

We would like to see them do more to ascertain a representative slice of public opinion on the measure to be paid for through 20-year bonds that will add to the district's existing bond debt. Specifically, we would like to see the board personally reach out to the 41.57 percent of district residents who rejected the bond — a significant increase over the 34.17 percent who voted no on the $79 million bond for two new middle schools and an elementary school built with state matching funds in February 2010.

While last Wednesday's meeting was a good start, it wasn't representative of the special election. Of the 25 people who spoke, four questioned different aspects of the bond proposal.

That's only 16 percent of those commenting — far lower than those who voted no. It's important all voices be heard on this matter, and that a good, proper public debate take place, not just a series of informational meetings.

Voices need to be heard because there are many factors to consider. The current high school is overcrowded and not adequate to accommodate anticipated growth over the next 5-10 years.

The expansion and remodel will alleviate that, but it's only part one of two. Another $42.9 million bond is planned to renovate the existing structure in 2025, with hopefully $25 million in state matching funds available. By this time, the work done under the current bond proposal may be almost outgrown.

There will be other needs as well, such as transportation. And about this time, some of the current district facilities will likely begin needing repairs and upgrades.

The district also anticipates adding another elementary school in the same period. Construction for Snowdon Elementary School, which opened in 2013 as a result of the 2010 bond, cost $13.35 million alone, not counting expenses for furniture, equipment, staff and other essentials.

There's the costs to residents. If the bond measure is passed, the 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value needed to pay for the work will fall on everyone.

While most discussion has centered on homeowners, renters could also see their monthly bills go up as landlords look to pass along the increased charges. And there is also the point that even among homeowners, an increase of a hundred dollars or so could create financial hardships some might not be able to endure.

There are also factors outside local control, such as gas prices rising again and taking with them prices on other commodities. Spokane Transit Authority is looking at putting a tax measure on the April ballot to pay for their "needed" improvements while county commissioners are considering revisiting a proposed property tax increase to pay for a corrections facility.

And there's the elephant in the room — paying for class-size reduction Initiative 1351. Legislators are seriously considering asking voters, who approved the measure last November, how we wish to pay for it.

There's a lot to be considered with the proposed bond. Yes, we want the best facilities and learning environment for our students. But if we create financial hardships on students' families, and leave our children with a legacy of public debt they will always be paying off, haven't we done more harm than good?

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Original Publication Date: March 5, 2015

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