Wa-Hi Bond Fails, “No Plan B” in Sight

Sarah Cornett

After months of tenuous debate, the bond to renovate Walla Walla High School failed last Tuesday, Feb. 12. Requiring 60 percent of the votes to pass, the measure garnered only 53 percent in a close count of 5,056 to 4,430.

The bond would have provided funds to modernize Wa-Hi, an institution built in 1963. The building retains most of its original structures, and the renovations would have included updating the science labs and adding interior hallways to promote security. 

Though the vote was not exceptionally close, many community members expressed surprise that it did not pass.  Countless local businesses had signs in their windows saying “Vote Yes Wa-Hi” and entire blocks of houses had yellow lawn signs saying the same.

On hearing the news last Tuesday night, Walla Walla Public Schools Superintendent Mick Miller expressed disappointed shock. He said that there are no alternative plans to modernize the school yet.

Wa-Hi Principal Pete Peterson also expressed disappointment at the bond’s failure. He also was not aware of any current plans to begin anew with efforts to renovate the school.

“I don’t think the superintendent has really processed it,” he said. “There’s no plan B that I am aware of.”

Many community members offered different theories on why the bond failed to pass. Most believe the conservative community was not ready to embrace a multi-million-dollar renovation of a community institution, one that many citizens want to appear similar to the Wa-Hi they grew up with. An article recently written by the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin editorial board offered other ways to move past the failure.

“The School Board has concluded––and we believe correctly––the community wants a new, modern Wa-Hi that has the same look and feel of Wa-Hi’s open campus. That’s a place to start,” the article said.

Many in this politically conservative community also believed the $69.6 million for the bond was too much, or that some of the modernizations were unnecessary.

Peterson said that he believes the economy served as the chief reason for the bond’s failure.

“I think it really comes down to the state of the local economy,” he said. “It’s a valid concern.”

These same questions arose before the official Feb. 12 vote through public meetings and countless U-B editorials. Whitman Professor of Physics Kurt Hoffman, who was a major activist on the bond’s behalf, said those in Walla Walla who did not vote for the bond are not necessarily against schools.

“The economy is in bad shape right now, and that did influence the decision of many community members,” he said. “My sense is that many people just have a difficult time understanding why a renovation would cost $60 million.”

Walla Walla County has a history of struggling to pass bonds for the benefit of schools. Green Park Elementary was renovated in 1991 only after three previous attempts to allot funds to modernize the school. U-B editorials cited it as a perfect example of a community coming together for the sake of education because of extensive discussion and opinions heard before the final vote.

Questions regarding College Place High School and possibilities that it could absorb many College Place residents that traditionally attend Wa-Hi also contributed to the bond’s failure.

Those involved in advocacy efforts for the bond are still upset from what they saw as a solid proposal, one that had been in the works since early last fall.

“We’re very disappointed,” said Miller.