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Published in Print: March 8, 2000, as State Ferries’ Budget Problems Worry Island Schools

State Ferries’ Budget Problems Worry Island Schools

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For the past 13 years that he has worked in the Vashon Island school district in Washington state, Monte L. Bridges has taken a ferry to work.

Every morning, Mr. Bridges—who has served as superintendent for the past five years—drives from his Seattle home, parks on the ferry, and arrives at the north end of the island 20 minutes later. He calculates that he has completed roughly 13,000 ferry trips during his entire tenure in the district.

To many of the island’s residents and workers, the ferry is not just a Puget Sound excursion, it’s a daily necessity. So with cuts in service looming as early as June that are blamed on passage of the state’s Initiative 695 last November, residents of the Vashon Island district and other Puget Sound island communities are concerned.

"About 259 of our employees and 62 students commute to Vashon each day," Mr. Bridges said. "Many of our new, bright teachers can’t find affordable housing on our island, so they choose to catch ferries."

The isolated, 36-square-mile island in King County has a population of 9,000, and about 20 percent of its residents work off the island, using ferry routes running south to Tacoma, east to Seattle, and west to Kitsap.

The 1,670-student school district pays for an average of 400 yearly group ferry trips so that students and staff members from the three schools on the island can travel to the mainland for athletic events and other competitions.

"I-695" was touted by supporters as a winning proposal for those in favor of lower taxes.

It repealed the state’s motor vehicle excise tax—known as MVETand replaced it with a $30 registration fee. The ballot measure also stipulated that any future tax or fee increases—on both the state and local levels—would be subject to voter approval. ("Washington Educators Fight Referendum on Taxes," Oct. 27, 1999.)

Because motor vehicle fees and taxes were previously paid based on a vehicle’s value, the savings to citizens under I-695 vary. An owner of a vehicle valued at $40,000 would save about $850 in taxes, while the owner of one valued at $5,000 would save about $80 in taxes annually.

The initiative was enacted despite objections from one of its main opponents—the Washington State Ferry System.

The Ripple Effect

Patricia Patterson, the director of public affairs for Washington State Ferries, said that all of the ferry service’s capital budget and 37 percent of its operating budget were derived from the excise taxes on vehicles. She said she knew that waving goodbye to those taxes would save motorists an average of a tempting $142 per registered vehicle.

Now that I-695 is in effect, the state ferry service has proposed eliminating passenger-only services and limiting late-night service to curtail a $52 million shortfall in its 1999-2001 operating budget of $316 million.

Ms. Patterson said that making such cuts to the service is "without a doubt the most distasteful thing that we have had to do.’’

"If the proposed cuts happen," she said, "we would go back to the service level we had in 1987, when we carried 18 million passengers. Last year, we carried 26 million."

The effect of such cutbacks can already be seen rippling toward the Puget Sound districts. On Vashon Island, Mr. Bridges is preparing for the worst. If ferry service is reduced, he said, the district could be booted from the Nisqually Athletic League.

Vashon Island is the only location in the six-member league that requires ferries for access. Some of the other districts—Chimacum, Eatonville, Foster, Ording, and Steilacoom— "would not want to spend extra money to pay the costs to commute if services are scaled back," Mr. Bridges said.

Craig Wrolstad, the athletic director at Ording High School and the president of the Nisqually Athletic League, said his goal was to keep Vashon in the league. But he acknowledges that if the proposed ferry cuts aren’t reversed, individual schools and school boards will have to weigh the options regarding Vashon Island’s competition in their league.

"If late-night service is reduced on the south end, we would have to take a ferry off the north end of the island near Seattle," Mr. Wrolstad said. "We are looking at turning a 90-minute commute into a three-hour commute, when we already get home after 12 midnight on some days." One solution would be starting the basketball, football, volleyball, and soccer games earlier to accommodate new ferry schedules. But, Mr. Wrolstad said, that would deter many people from attending games, which would in turn affect "how we raise money."

Help From Legislature?

School districts on Orcas and San Juan islands are also devising strategies to cope with possible ferry reductions. Those districts estimate that their annual transportation bills will increase by $5,000 to $6,000 if the service cuts are approved.

Reducing the service would hurt interscholastic activities and the school districts, said Steve Nielson, the executive director of the Washington State Association of School Directors. Mr. Nielson argued that "695 was passed on emotion and sound bite. People didn’t understand the effect on all kinds of issues when they voted to cut back on taxes."

Officials of the Bainbridge Island school district said they wouldn’t be much affected by the loss of passenger-ferry service because the island has a bridge that extends from the Olympic Peninsula, where most extracurricular activities occur, to the western end of their island.

"For the most part, we are self-contained," said Mary Sue Silver, the athletic secretary for Bainbridge High School.

Ms. Patterson of the state ferries said worrying and planning wouldn’t be necessary if the state legislature in Olympia decided to help the ferry system with its predicament.

Legislators were scheduled to pass or revise the state budget, which includes ferry funding, by March 9.

"We are talking about the transit system having an impact on schools," Ms.Patterson said, "and we need to do everything that we can to make sure that we have ferry service."

Vol. 19, Issue 26, Page 6

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