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February bond vote will decide fate of Dieringer School District

By Teresa Herriman, The Courier-Herald

The fate of the Dieringer School District is riding on a Feb. 3 capital projects bond election. If the bond fails to pass, the state board of education will disband the school district, shifting it as a whole or in part to the neighboring districts of White River, Sumner and Auburn.

Dieringer School District Superintendent Judy Neumeier-Martinson says the make-or-break issue is complex. The Dieringer district offers kindergarten through eighth grade education in the Lake Tapps area, but because it does not have a high school, it pays tuition costs for high school students to attend school in other districts. Nearly 94 percent of Dieringer students choose to attend Auburn-Riverside High School. The rest attend Sumner High. The arrangement was formalized in 1984, establishing Auburn as the designated district serving the majority of Dieringer's high school students.

"We have a really good system," Neumeier-Martinson said. "It has been seamless for our kids, but with a lot of options."

When overcrowding recently forced Auburn to consider building a new school, Dieringer was obliged by law to pay a proportionate share of the construction cost. Based on the number of Dieringer students enrolled at Auburn-Riverside, the amount is determined to be 10 percent of the overall construction cost, or $4.9 million. The cost to individual taxpayers is estimated to be an additional 6 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $12 annually on a $200,000 home for 17 years.

The Dieringer School District was established in 1890 and the Lake Tapps School District was annexed in 1936. The district includes three schools: Lake Tapps Elementary School, Dieringer Heights Elementary School and North Tapps Middle School. The majority of Dieringer School District No. 343 is in unincorporated Pierce County, bounded on the east by the White River, on the west by the Stuck River, on the north by the city of Auburn and on the south by the cities of Bonney Lake and Sumner. The district surrounds the northern two-thirds of Lake Tapps and covers approximately 5.5 square miles.

Auburn has selected a site near the Green River Community College for its new high school. Although Dieringer students have the option of attending the new high school, it's believed most of the students will probably choose to stay at the current school rather than travel further north. The addition of the new high school will, however, drastically reduce the student population at the Auburn High School to more manageable levels.

Neumeier-Martinson said it took the Auburn district five times to pass the school bond, but Dieringer doesn't have that luxury. "We have just two opportunities," she said. Further, if the bond fails on the first try, the school district has 60 days to hold another election for the second, and final attempt. Since there are no other elections scheduled before the 60-day deadline, the school district must bear the entire cost of the election. Neumeier-Martinson said the situation is so unusual, the county auditor couldn't even give her an estimate on how much that would cost.

Should the bond issue fail a second time, the 113 year-old district would be dismantled. Ironically, if that happened, Dieringer voters would still have to pay the cost of a new school. All three of the surrounding school districts have already passed construction bonds for new schools. The White River district opened a new high school last fall, while the Sumner and Auburn districts have new high schools under construction. "Everyone is in the business of building a new high school," Neumeier-Martinson said. She points out that it would be less expensive to taxpayers to pass the bond issue and keep their school district.

Neumeier-Martinson is concerned that if tiny Dieringer becomes part of a much larger district, local parents and residents would "lose control of not only the education system, but the tax dollars." Neumeier-Martinson describes the Dieringer School District as "public schools with a private school feel." She feels that the smaller schools serve the community well.

An operations and maintenance program levy will also appear on the Feb. 3 ballot. Dieringer uses funds collected through the levy, voted by area taxpayers every two years. Taxes currently cover the tuition for 440 high school students who attend Auburn and 29 students who attend Sumner High School. The operations levy is not a new tax. It will replace the expiring 2003 and 2004 levies. The levy for 2005 and 2006 will collect $2.5 million and nearly $2.6 million, respectively.

Washington state funds 72 percent of the everyday costs of operating the schools in the Dieringer district. Money from the levy covers the remaining 28 percent. This money funds extra curricular and after school activities, classroom teachers and support staff, instructional materials, special services for students who need more individualized assistance, student transportation, school facility and operations support and high school tuition at a rate of $1,491 per student.

"This isn't just a casual choice," Neumeier-Martinson said. "We must decide whether we will continue to exist as a district or not. That is the question."

Information regarding the bond and levy are available on the Dieringer School District's Web site at www.dieringer.wednet.edu/newdistrict/about/budget/bondlev.html. Or, call Neumeier-Martinson at 253-862-2537.

Teresa Herriman can be reached at therriman@courierherald.com.

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