Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
WASHINGTON ― Voting begins this Wednesday for a bond election that will determine if the Washington Community School District’s middle school plans will proceed.
Superintendent Willie Stone said a successful bond election was the only way to fund the $25 million project.
“The last time they ran a bond issue and it didn’t pass, the state changed the sales tax revenue dollar statewide … and that opened up more money for us,” he said. “We do not have the capacity to do that this time.”
Stone stressed that the bond issue on the ballot would not raise property taxes of any type. In fact, the decision to build onto the high school, rather than constructing a new middle school, was chosen from a list of four options for exactly that reason.
“If we did the new building, there would be a tax increase of $1.35 (per thousand of assessed valuation), and that affects people differently,” Stone said. “Not terrible for homeowners, but as you get into agriculture, it was a really significant increase.”
Stone said the district had the chance to pass the referendum without raising taxes because property taxes were already set high enough from the last bond election.
“It won’t change the tax rate because we have a bond rolling off for $2.70,” he said. “The tax rate could go down if we don’t pass the bond, but if we pass the bond it’ll stay the same.”
Stone said raising the acreage-based property tax rate to fund more expensive options was out of the question, given the district’s agricultural community.
“If I were to judge, that’s why Option 3 was the one that was picked, because of what it does to the tax rates for agriculture in our area,” he said. “(The tax rate) goes per acre, and it jumps significantly, and we care about that. Our goal is to be good stewards of our taxpayers’ dollars, and this gives us the best option to do that.”
After crunching the numbers, Stone said the option to build onto the high school would save the district — and its taxpayers — five figures in expenses.
“Option 4, (building a new middle school building,) was $30-$32 million, plus we would still have to do approximately $10 million of renovation at the east wing of the high school,” he said. “With this option, we’re getting what we need, and we’re getting that renovated for probably $10-$12 million less. It really just makes sense.”
While there’s a lot of community sentiment for the old middle school building, Stone said the new model, which would renovate and add a middle school wing to the current high school, offered myriad benefits.
“When we upgrade the facility, we would have environmental control of the educational environment for all our students districtwide,” he said. “In addition we’ll have air handling and circulation that we currently don’t have in either the middle school building or the old part of the high school.”
While they’ll share a building, Stone said the middle school and high school students would occupy different areas and not regularly interact with one another.
“We’re basically going to have two separate buildings,” he said. “I won’t say there won’t be any interaction, but it will be very slim … For the most part, our kids won’t be together unless we want them to be together.”
The fate of the current middle school building, should the resolution pass, is undetermined. Stone said the district gave itself a deadline of summer, 2026 to find a reputable buyer that would agree to renovate the building as a condition of purchase.
“After that, if it doesn’t and it reverts back to the school, or we can’t find someone, we will demolish it,” he said. “We’re trying to be very upfront with that. We want to find someone to use it and to do something, but we have a few buildings in town that are falling apart, and we’re not going to let the school allow that to happen.”
Should the bond issue pass, Stone said construction would begin during the 2023-24 school year and go through two building phases before ending the next school year, with the entire building usable by fall of 2025.
Stone said the first phase would construct a two-story, 22,000 square foot addition to the high school, which would open up the east wing for renovations the school year after. Those renovations will include repairs in the current east wing, the installation of a secure entry, a new gymnasium on the southeast side of the building, a 19,000 square foot addition to accommodate the middle school wing, and around 90 new parking spaces.
As a bond issue, a minimum 60% of voters need to approve the referendum for it to pass. If it fails, Stone said the district has some time to seek another solution for its aging middle school.
“We have time to do another one, that’s part of the reason we’re doing it so early,” he said. “If it doesn’t pass, then we’re going to have to try to find out why it didn’t pass, and make the necessary changes to make sure we can run it again.”
Absentee voting for the bond referendum begins at the Washington County Courthouse Aug. 25, with the deadline to request an absentee ballot Aug. 30 at 5 p.m. Absentee ballots are due Sept. 13.
For in-person voters, the registration deadline is Sept. 3 at 5 p.m., before Election Day Sept. 14. Polls will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the County Courthouse basement and at Brighton Town Hall.