As more people move to Mason County, Howard Leggett has noticed a positive momentum coalesce throughout the region.
That’s why he believes that now is the time to build a new high school.
“To me, with all the growth of the county and knowing the demographics and the talent pool that is coming to this county that we’ve attracted through cultural tourism, with young families wanting a lifestyle change or retired people, it just makes sense,” he said.
Leggett, a resident of Union, chairs a campaign that supports the joint measure on voters’ ballots in Pioneer and Hood Canal School Districts to build a new high school in Mason County.
Each community will need to pass the measure with a 60 percent majority on Tuesday, Feb. 13, to approve the construction of a new cooperative high school that would house approximately 400 students total from the two districts.
Pioneer and Hood Canal, both of which are K-8 districts, pay Shelton and North Mason School Districts to send their students on to higher grades, but rising costs from Shelton to support construction at Shelton High prompted Pioneer and Hood Canal to re-evaluate their needs.
If the measure is approved, the districts plan to build a high school that focuses on science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, mathematics and service (STREAMS), with an emphasis on getting students prepared for the workforce, particularly jobs in forestry and aquaculture.
“This gives us an opportunity to be innovative,” said Hood Canal Superintendent Shawn Batstone. “Now’s the time to think about job readiness and how we can prepare our students. High schools are a source of community pride that our residents would benefit from as well.”
The plan set forth in the bond measure is also financially responsible, Batstone added.
“We couldn’t do this alone,” he said. “People have talked about this in Hood Canal since the '70s because there’s this desire for local control, but we’ve never had the numbers to justify it.”
On the other hand, Pioneer has the enrollment, but not the tax base that could support a new high school on its own, said Pioneer School District Superintendent Martin Brewer.
“In less than three years, we grew by 120 students,” he said. “We’re already seeing the growth bulge that’s coming out of Seattle and King and Snohomish counties. We have the students, but not the capital. Hood Canal has the money, but not enough kids. It’s a win-win.”
With an estimated enrollment of 408 students, the new high school would rank around the middle in terms of size among Washington’s 384 high schools, at 203.
The new high school would be classified as a 1A school with the Washington Interscholastic Athletics Association, slightly smaller than North Mason High School (a 2A school), which is ranked in size at No. 188, and Shelton High School (3A), which ranks at No. 101.
The new high school would be larger than Mary M. Knight High School (a B school). The largest high school in the state is South Kitsap High School, a 4A school with more than 2,000 students.
As a 1A school, competing in athletics with schools in Elma, Montesano, Hoquiam, Forks and Tenino, the new high school would have all extracurricular sports and activities, including football, volleyball, basketball, wrestling, cheerleading, band, drama and choir.
“When people think of ‘non-high’ schools, the automatic perception is that they’re small,” Brewer said. “Actually, the new school would be right in the sweet spot or the average in terms of size. Funding models at the state are always based on the most average schools.”
Brewer and Batstone have circuited local community clubs and school boards this past month to share information on the measure, and they’ve largely been met with positive response.
“I never saw the momentum in past elections as I see now for this bond measure,” Brewer said. “It feels very different. There’s energy and passion for this new concept. People want to have control of their own destinies. They want to have a voice. That’s very powerful to people.”
The districts would share in the cost of building the high school, about $30 million each, and the cooperative effort would attract up to $10 million in state funding for construction, for a total cost of about $60 million to build the new school.
“As one parent told me, it’s like getting a high school for 60 percent off,” said Leggett, who has a sixth-grade son. “We’ve really worked hard to clean up this county and people are excited and feeling positive about this new direction.”
Rather than spending around $1 million collectively in fees to Shelton and North Mason, Brewer noted that Pioneer and Hood Canal would be able to fund operations at a new high school without going back to voters for additional maintenance and operations dollars.
The new high school also would bring in about $5.6 million in annual revenue from the state to pay for instruction.
Under the new bond measure, Pioneer voters could expect their rates to increase by about 99 cents per $1,000 of the assessed value of a home, while Hood Canal voters’ taxes would rise by about $1.36 per $1,000 of the assessed value of a home.
Pioneer will finish paying for construction of its new middle school and elementary school expansion in 2036, and Hood Canal voters will finish paying for the bond on their current school building in 2021.
If the bond measure for the new high school fails, the districts would need to run bonds to pay for their share (about $4.5 million each) of the improvements at Shelton High School that Shelton voters approved last year.
With that in mind, Batstone said that his district is committed to evaluating all of their options.
“If our voters don’t pass this, the Hood Canal school board is open to the idea of running this again based on the results,” he said.
Given Pioneer School District’s history (voters rejected bonds 14 times in the last 17 years), Brewer said he wasn’t sure whether Pioneer could commit to going back to voters, unless the vote came back very close.
“We understand this impacts all of Mason County,” he said. “With the growth patterns we’ve seen here and around the county, whether it’s this initiative or not, there’s going to be a need for a new high school in Mason County in the next 15 years.”
And when that happens, students will have more opportunities, including opportunities to partner with local industries on hands-on projects, Leggett said.
"When I see the high school, I only see the jobs it creates," he said. "I don't see taxes and politics. The parents are the driving force behind this because a lot of us can see there is a great goal in front of us."
For more information, attend an informational event from noon to 3 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 27, at the Union Square Deli in Union, sponsored by the Vote Yes campaign.