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Originally published February 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 27, 2008 at 12:32 AM

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School bonds: Bellevue thinks big

With the Bellevue School District between superintendents and facing a $4.8 million budget shortfall, the national economy faltering and...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Bellevue schoolsconstruction bond

In a March 11 election, Bellevue School District residents are being asked to approve a 20-year, $545 million bond issue. The money would be used to:

• Rebuild Ardmore, Cherry Crest and Spiritridge elementary schools.

• Substantially renovate Bellevue High School.

• Add new classrooms, science labs and security to Sammamish High School.

• Modernize Tyee and Chinook middle schools.

If funds remain after those projects are completed, additional middle schools may be modernized and gymnasiums may be added to Bennett, Enatai and Puesta del Sol elementary schools.

If the bond issue is approved, the total annual cost to property owners would be $213 per $100,000 assessed value.

For more information go to www.bellevuequalityschools.com.

With the Bellevue School District between superintendents and facing a $4.8 million budget shortfall, the national economy faltering and construction costs volatile, school leaders here might have had reason to postpone a half-billion-dollar tax measure to modernize schools.

But when they took the proposed bond measure to community leaders for feedback in late August, what they heard was "Sooner rather than later" and "Don't scale it back."

And the price tag?

"It wasn't a number that particularly shocked them, though it shocks me," said Peter Bentley, president of the Bellevue School Board.

The Bellevue School District will ask voters to approve its largest-ever school-construction initiative, a 20-year, $545 million bond measure in a special election March 11. The measure would fund a $100 million renovation to Bellevue High School; completely rebuild three elementary schools; add science labs, classrooms and security to Sammamish High School; and modernize Tyee and Chinook Middle Schools.

Because of the booming development in downtown Bellevue and the already substantial city tax base, voters can approve the measure and still end up paying half what residents pay in school taxes in many surrounding districts.

If it passes, property owners in Bellevue will pay a total local school tax rate of $213 per $100,000 assessed value, compared with $208 per $100,000 in 2007. That represents about a $25 increase for a $500,000 home over the 2007 taxes. In King County, only Seattle and Mercer Island residents pay less for public schools.

The first phase of school modernization, a $324 million bond measure in 2002, paid for construction or renovations to 12 schools. All projects were completed on time, said Steve Brown, chairman of Bellevue Quality Schools, the citizens group that is backing the measure. Because of steep escalation in construction costs over the past few years, three projects weren't built because money ran out.

Those three, Ardmore, Cherry Crest and Spiritridge elementary schools, all originally built between 1967 and 1970, would be the first built under the new bond measure.

Brown said the schools had been "slammed up" as the new suburb was filling with young families. The buildings share a California-style design featuring flat roofs, open breezeways and inexpensive materials not meant to last more than 25 to 30 years.

Under the renovation plan, the old schools would be leveled and rebuilt with ample daylight, interior skylights, modern technology and energy-efficient heating and electrical systems.

Bellevue High School, built in 1949, would get an almost complete makeover. The district plans to add science labs and a performing-arts center and to bring the entire building up to the "like-new" quality of Interlake and Newport high schools, which were renovated under the 2002 bond issue.

Bellevue High School principal David Wellington said five remodelings over the past 60 years "have really left the school feeling cobbled together." Hallways are narrow, heating and lighting systems inefficient, and the school's technology powered with "wires that run all over the place," he said.

Chinook and Tyee middle schools also would get makeovers under the bond proposal. An architectural consultant hired by the district to evaluate the condition of all the middle schools concluded that the two were most in need of improvements. The district said the two are also the most crowded middle schools.

The Bellevue School District mailed an informational postcard to all households. Local school PTSAs also have "inundated" families with information about the bond measure, said Connie Gerlitz, Bellevue PTSA Council president.

Still, some voters who received their ballots in the mail last week said they hadn't heard anything about the bond measure and were shocked by the cost.

"It's a huge number, and I haven't seen a bit of publicity," said Bob Bethke, a Bellevue contractor.

Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger said most citizens recognize the value in maintaining schools that are consistently ranked as among the best in the nation. The bond measure, he said, represents an investment not only in student learning but also in the strength of neighborhoods.

"You can't be a great city without great schools," he said.

The Bellevue bond measure will be the only ballot issue March 11 for voters within the Bellevue School District. Three other King County school districts also are running levy or bond measures that day: Mercer Island, Snoqualmie Valley and Renton.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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