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Superintendent spells out new bond/levy proposal

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Sunnyside School District Superintendent Dr. Rick Cole holds up a map for Sunnyside Noon Rotarians this past Monday, outlining the property purchased to build a new school. The district purchased 59 acres of land east of Washout Road and south of Van Belle Road to construct the school.

It basically boils down to what difference does 5¢ make to Sunnyside residents. Well, 5¢ could make a few million dollars difference, according to Sunnyside School District Superintendent Dr. Rick Cole.

Cole presented the forthcoming bond/levy proposal, which will go before Sunnyside School District voters in the next few weeks, to his fellow Rotarians at the Sunnyside Noon Rotary meeting on Monday.

Sunnyside School District patrons who don't vote by absentee ballot will head to the polls on Feb. 3 to decide the fate of a bond/levy proposal, which could bring as much as $46 million in funding for new construction to the school district. Absentee voters will receive their ballots in the mail Jan. 14, said Cole.

Of 15 school districts from Grandview to Yakima, Sunnyside has the second lowest tax rate, $1.41 per $1,000 of assessed property value, said Cole. The Mt. Adams School District has only a lower tax rate, at 84¢ per $1,000 of assessed property value. The Mt. Adams School District receives a large amount of federal funding because it is on Yakama Indian Nation land.

Highland has the highest tax rate in Yakima County at $5.49 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Grandview is second at $5.11 and East Valley is third at $4.92.

Prior to 2001, the Sunnyside School District never ran a levy, said Cole. The district only ran a series of bonds, which helped pay for construction at Sunnyside High School and the building of Pioneer Elementary School. District patrons started incurring bond debt for the high school construction in 1987 at a rate of $2.57 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The rate fell to $2.27 per $1,000 of assessed property value by 1995 when the bond passed for the construction of Pioneer.

Voters overwhelmingly passed Sunnyside's first school district levy in 2000 with 74.7 percent voting in favor. The levy rate was $1.53 per $1,000 of assessed property value in 2001. The money from the levy goes to fund a variety of district activities, said Cole.

The district is seeking a small increase from the $1.2 million levy approved in 2000. The 2004 levy is for $1.4 million. The bond issue before voters will be for $11 million. If the bond issue is approved, the district will qualify for reimbursement monies from the state, which would make a minimum of $40 million available for construction and remodels.

Currently, Cole explained, patrons are only paying for the levy, not the bond voters approved in the past. The district pays for the bond using excess revenue dollars from the general fund.

Cole said the district for years left untouched millions of dollars in untapped levy equalization money from the state because it didn't have a levy. The state provides school districts with levy equalization money to bring them up to par with funding received in the King County school districts.

The bond portion of what the district is proposing to the voters involves several different projects, said Cole.

Cole said the bond issue will help in the construction of two new schools and the modernization of two others.

Cole said the district is looking to build a new middle school, sixth through eighth grades, and a new kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school. The bond will also cover the modernization of Washington Elementary School and Sunnyside High School. Cole said the projects will be completed in the order above because of the funding cycle from the state.

With the new make-up, there will be two middle schools, which will be entirely separate from one another, said Cole. The high school will also be different as the ninth grade will be separated from the rest of the student body in a learning academy type setting. Cole said the freshmen will still be able to take part in all high school activities. The remaining buildings in the school district will then become kindergarten through fifth grade buildings.

The district opted to run a bond issue because of the increasing student population. In 1993, the school district had a head count (actual students in classrooms) of 4,508. The enrollment in 2003 was 5,442 students. Enrollment is projected to increase to 6,291 students by 2008. Cole said the district has increased by roughly 100 students every year for the past few years.

"Every time you have 100 kids that is five teachers and five classrooms," said Cole.

The district is also running a bond issue to get away from the use of portables to house students. Sunnyside currently has 47 portables, said Cole, many of which are more than 20 years old.

The district will generate about $3.7 million in equalization dollars if the $1.4 million levy is passed.

Sunnyside uses the levy dollars to help pay for some unfunded district activities, such as athletics and safety and security issues. Cole said one benefit of passing the levy is the district will be able to keep its student resource officers.

District patrons are going to see a 15¢ per $1,000 of assessed value increase to cover the bond indebtedness from constructing Pioneer School. For a nickel more, pointed out Cole, the district will gain a total of about $46 million in revenues if voters pass both the 2004 levy and bond issues.

Cole explained district patrons would be saving money and getting a lot in return by approving the coming measure, since the school board has agreed to only collect the levy from voters. If the new bond cost were passed on to local patrons, the assessment would be $4.99 per $1,000 of assessed value. Cole said the amount collected on the levy could actually be less if the valuation of the school district changes. Sunnyside School District has a current valuation of $844 million.

The interesting part to the whole bond/levy issue is that if it fails, said Cole, district patrons will see their taxes go up 15¢ per $1,000 of assessed property value to pay for the bond debt the district already has on the books. Cole said the district can't afford to pay for the existing bond debt without the levy passing. Cole said for an additional 5¢ per $1,000 of assessed value the school district will be able to meet its needs and better serve students for years to come.

. Mike Kantman can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or email him at mkantman@eaglenewspapers.com

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