MLSB halts construction spending

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Cheryl Schweizer/Columbia Basin Herald Residents of the Moses Lake School District react to a statement – green for approval, red for disapproval – at a meeting of the Moses Lake School Board on Thursday.

MOSES LAKE — The Moses Lake School Board on Thursday voted unanimously to suspend all spending on any construction-related projects until the lawsuit over last February’s school bond is settled.

The board is also going to look into alternatives to the construction of a second high school for Moses Lake — something state law allows — should the $135.4 million bond measure survive the court challenge.

“We’re out of money,” said Board President Eric Stones during a packed meeting of the Moses Lake School Board. “We can’t move forward with planning on an elementary school and a second high school.”

The district’s capital budget assumed the sale of at least a portion of the bonds in order to fund continued work, according to Superintendent Josh Meek, and that fund is now empty.

Meek also said that state law allows the school board, after deciding that circumstances have changed, to alter what it wants to build.

“(State law) in essence gives the ability from a legal stance for a board to make alterations to a previously passed resolution,” Meek told board members.

The process involves convening a public hearing and soliciting public feedback for any revisions to a bond construction plan, Meek said. It’s often used in districts with long term overcrowding problems, the superintendent added, noting that some districts will run a 20-year bond for one set of construction projects only to revise it over time as needs change.

However, as Stones moved a resolution in favor of considering options other than a second high school, several people in the crowd shouted “no!” and a number of those in attendance held up red cards to signal their disapproval.

“This is just exploratory,” Stones said. “Not decision making.”

Prior to the meeting, those attending were given sheets of red and green construction paper to hold up to signal their approval or disapproval.

The board is looking into other options to deal with overcrowding in the Moses Lake schools despite the passage last February of the $135.4 million construction bond for a new high school and elementary school. A group of district voters sued Grant County Auditor Michelle Jaderlund, claiming she did not follow the law in counting disputed ballots.

After a trial court judge ruled in the county’s favor, the plaintiffs appealed, and Third Appellate Court in Spokane has yet to rule on the matter.

This makes it impossible to sell any of the bonds right now, since the district doesn’t have the ability to collect taxes to guarantee repayment.

However, if the bond measure survives court challenges, the district will have the ability to issue the bonds — and levy the taxes to repay them, Meek said. Regardless of what construction projects the board chooses.

The board is also looking at other options because a majority of its members now appear to be opposed to the construction of a second high school after Stones made clear his opposition.

“I have been dead set that to build a second high school is overbuilding at the high school level,” Stones said.

Stones, who joins newly elected members Vickey Melcher and Elliott Goodrich in opposition to a second high school, explained that he was looking at a future in which Moses Lake would soon need at least one more middle school and two more elementary schools.

“In 10 years, well need to ask you as a community for another $100 million,” he said. “Our tax base cannot afford it, and it’s fiscally irresponsible.”

“Yes, the bond passed,” Stones added. “But I’m not a proponent for spending it on a new high school.”

There were other alternatives to dealing with overcrowding at Moses Lake High School that weren’t adequately explored, Stones said, such as the $109 million proposal to extensively remodel MLHS.

In the end, the board agreed to table beginning consideration of any alternatives to a second high school until after a Jan. 11 study session.

Meek, who is not a voting member of the school board, cautioned board members to consider that they are sitting before a passionate and divided group of citizens, and whatever the board decides, the law must be scrupulously followed.

Passions ran deep on both sides at the Thursday meeting, and it seemed many residents were still arguing over the merits of the February bond, which just barely passed with 60.03 percent approval.

“Farm revenues don’t go up with land values, but property taxes do,” said Stephen Phipps, farm manager at Piper Ranch. “In 2013, we spent $52,000 on property taxes. This next year we will spend $110,000, without this school bond.”

The school construction bond would add around $30,000 to the Piper Ranch tax bill, Phipps said.

“To put that in perspective, in some years, $30,000 is 10 percent of our farm profit,” he said.

Phipps added he was glad that with the addition of Goodrich, there is “someone on the board that is going to pay like we will pay.”

“I support those who have come to support the new school here,” said Kari Mooney, who is one of the few district residents to regularly attend board meetings.

“For the last year and a half, the school board has done their due diligence, held school bond meetings, held information meetings, given you all the resources everybody in this community needed to make a wise decision on how they were going to vote for this bond,” she said.

“I am sad and I am frustrated that those who are speaking against the bond are now only speaking about it,” Mooney said. “You had a year and a half to do it and it’s frustrating. This bond isn’t going away.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at countygvt@columbiabasinherald.com

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