The state Legislature has set aside $10 million toward construction of a new high school in Toledo, but there’s a caveat — voters must first agree to pass a $7 million bond.
Voters in Toledo have rejected four separate school bonds since 2014, the most recent being a $12.2 million request from the district in February.
Now, Superintendent Chris Rust says he will begin reaching out to the community members who have opposed the previous bonds in order to determine whether it would be wise to pursue the matter a fourth time.
“I can’t afford to make our voters angry,” said Rust, who noted he has heard and understands the feedback of some residents who were annoyed and frustrated by the district’s most recent attempt at bond, which came just after the previous failure in November.
“I want people to ask us to run this bond, to say, ‘Boy this is a good deal. Would you please ask for it?” Rust said.
The deal is sweetened by the fact that, if a bond is approved, the district would receive an additional $8 to $9 million in funding from the state’s School Construction Assistance Program. Adding that to the $7 million bond and the $10 million approved by lawmakers as a distressed schools grant in the supplemental capital budget, the district would have about $25 million to spend on a new school.
Rust plans to ask opponents of previous measures to publicly endorse the plan through letters to the editor in The Chronicle and other means. If a majority of those district residents remain opposed to the plan after hearing the full proposal from Rust and other supporters, Rust said he will advise the school board that the best course of action is to not run the bond.
“If they can’t support it, (we) will recommend the board not run the bond and say (to the state), ‘Please give the money to a school district that needs it and will appreciate it,’” Rust said.
If previous opponents of the bonds are in favor of the idea, the district will have one opportunity to place it on a ballot in 2018 and two in 2019. If a bond is approved, and the state money arrives as expected, the soonest a new high school could be built would be fall 2020.
“I think that this is a sweetheart deal, but I don’t think I can predict our community, whether they would be in favor of this or not,” Rust said Friday, later adding, “This is our last best hope for doing anything for the high school. I think it’s going to do nothing but get more expensive … I don’t see the Legislature doing this another time.”
Rust praised the work of local state lawmakers Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, and Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, who worked closely with district leaders to add the money to the supplemental budget approved by the Legislature this week.
Members of the House Capital Budget Committee, among them state Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, toured the school in October. They told Rust to reach out to them if voters rejected the latest bond attempt, so he did. From there, Rust attended a meeting with DeBolt, asking for $2.5 million in assistance from the state.
“I wanted to at least make the building warm and dry,” Rust said. “I went to meet with DeBolt, but he and Tharinger thought it was a mistake to do that because it’s such an old building.”
DeBolt, Tharinger and Orcutt instead worked to get $10 million toward the construction of a new school.
“DeBolt and his staff and Rep. Tharinger really did all the heavy lifting on this,” Rust said. “All we did was ask the question and tell the story. They did a remarkable job for our community.”
Local lawmakers will be in attendance at a meeting in Toledo later this month to make a direct pitch to voters when VISION:Toledo holds its community meeting March 22 at 7 p.m. at Toledo Middle School.
“I want the legislators to be able to say to our community, ‘It’s our intent that you build a new school,” Rust said.
Supplemental Budget Also Includes Funding for George Washington Statue, Other Local Projects
Local projects included in the Legislature’s supplemental budget, which passed Thursday on the final day of the session, range from funding for the George Washington statue in Centralia to $10 million in distressed schools money for Toledo Public Schools.
A rundown of area projects included in the budget shows legislators are on board with the 200th birthday celebrations for Centralia’s founder, pitching in $75,000 for the statue of George and Mary Jane Washington set to be unveiled in August. Based on previous estimates, the allocation would put the project well over the amount needed to complete the statue.
The biggest area payout is $10 million set aside for Toledo Public Schools, which the state’s fiscal website says is part of distressed schools funding.
Another $1.3 million was put toward fire restoration in the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area. The funds will be put toward structures, roads and trails damaged in last summer’s fire.
The bill also funds planning for a pedestrian overpass where the Willapa Hills Trail crosses State Route 6, with $21,000 marked for that purpose. Design and permitting for the overpass will take place in the 2017-19 biennium, with construction taking place in the following budget.
Infrastructure in Pe Ell will get a boost as well, with $340,000 in the supplemental budget. It’s unclear what project or projects that money is intended for.
Greenwood Cemetery will get a big investment of its own, with $250,000 set aside for the abandoned site.
In Packwood, $228,000 will go toward a Cowlitz River public access point.
See more on the budget in Tuesday’s edition of The Chronicle. This story has been updated to note the correct number of bonds that have failed to win the approval of 60 percent of voters since 2014.