Teachers unions, labor groups and contractors are backing a statewide ballot measure that would issue $505 million in bonds to pay for energy retrofits at public schools and colleges across Washington.
Referendum 52 authorizes the state to exceed the debt limit in the state constitution for the bonds and continue the sales tax on bottled water set to expire 2013 to pay for improvements.
Supporters say the measure will replace aging pipes and heating and cooling systems, install more efficient windows and lighting, and make other energy-efficient improvements. They say it will create jobs, save energy costs over the years and create a healthier learning environment.
"We have a lot of old schools in the state," said Kevin Laverty, a Mukilteo school board member and president of the Washington State School Directors' Association, which supports the referendum. "This money is going to go a long way."
Opponents say it will saddle the state with too much debt and won't create the number of jobs or provide the energy savings that supporters say it will.
"R52 is not going to come through with the results that the proponents think it's going to," said Rep. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake. "It's like maxing out our credit cards and using it for disposable items, like light bulbs and windows."
Under Referendum 52, the state will borrow $505 million by issuing bonds to be repaid from future revenue. Another measure on the November ballot, Initiative 1107, however, would repeal the bottled water tax. The 29-year debt service will cost $937 million. Public school districts and public higher education institutions will compete for grants to pay for construction projects, and at least five percent of the total amount will be awarded to districts with fewer than 1,000 students.
Supporters have raised $427,019, with McKinstry Essention, a construction and design company, being R-52's largest contributor at $52,000. The firm's chief executive officer, Dean Allen, also gave $25,000, according to the latest state Public Disclosure Commission figures. Other large donations have come from Quantum Engineering, Public School Employees of Washington and the Washington Building and Construction Trades Council.
Although there is no apparent organized opposition, the Washington Policy Center has been a vocal critic, along with Republican legislators.
"What are we getting for another $1 billion in debt?" asked Todd Myers, the center's environmental director. A similar state program hasn't lived up to its promises and has often resulted in smaller energy savings than projected, he said.
"Schools that have real needs will see their money go to schools that may have fewer needs but have an energy retrofit project," he added.
Supporters say the measure will create 30,000 jobs, a combination of part- and full-time work that last for about a year. Opponents put that number closer to 5,700 short-term jobs. The pro-R52 figure is based on state estimates of 16 jobs created for every $1 million spent in construction, but it also takes into account match money provided local districts as well as money saved from energy efficiencies.
Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, who sponsored legislation to put the issue before voters, said the measure will result in millions in energy savings. "Energy is the coming problem and we need jobs and it's the time to do it," he said.
For Jamie Downing, an English teacher in Yakima County's Grandview High School, making improvement boils down to a better teaching environment.
She teaches in an old building where blown fuses are common, so she and her students have to be careful about how many laptops or other equipment is plugged in at one time.
The central heating and air conditioning system is also old, meaning that classroom temperatures fluctuate regularly; it rarely gets above 65 degrees in the winter, she said, and the air conditioning is often down during hot days, as it was earlier this week.
"The kids were complaining. They're not wanting to learn. It doesn't make it very comfortable," Downing said.