The Facilities Planning Task Force has presented several ideas to the larger community to review in December, so that Superintendent Greg Baker can develop a plan to prioritize major facility improvement projects for Bellingham Public Schools for the next 10 years. The Happy Valley Neighborhood Association board of directors has voted unanimously to support the idea of keeping open and active all three of our neighborhood schools, including Larrabee Elementary, Happy Valley Elementary and Sehome High Schools. We believe that Larrabee Elementary should not be closed, retired, nor "re-purposed." We believe that great neighborhood schools enhance strong communities and successful neighborhoods.
While the school district must focus on facility costs and operational efficiencies, our association believes that there is a calculable and an incalculable value of preserving, renovating and keeping all three Happy Valley Neighborhood schools open, both for the students and for a neighborhood asset. The Happy Valley Neighborhood Plan, as adopted by the City of Bellingham, updated in 2011, includes goals and policies: Happy Valley goal No. 4 is to urge the school district to keep neighborhood schools open, and Happy Valley policy No. 48 is to encourage the preservation of smaller neighborhood school buildings. Because Larrabee Elementary is already publicly owned, it should remain in public use if it closes.
Dollars and sense: In the last five years, significant public and private funds have been spent to improve, renovate and operate Larrabee Elementary, including.
$1.5 million spent for renovation and seismic retrofitting for earthquake safety. Work was completed in 2009 with funds from the 2006 bond, when then-Supt. Dale E. Kinsley stated,"Making education a top priority and supporting our schools is one of this community's finest traditions."
$55,000 spent for the Larrabee Safe Routes to School project, including engineering improvements (sidewalk, curb and ramp construction; crosswalks; ADA ramps; flashing crossing; stop signs; and upgrading school zone signs). The improvements were requested by the school district and funds were provided through a Washington Department of Transportation Safe Routes to School grant.
$10,000 raised by the Larrabee PTA to replace the asphalt playground with a grassy field, a field that is also well used by the neighborhood children when school is not in session.
$35,000 raised and donated by Ryan Stiles through the Larrabee PTA to buy and install new playground equipment.
? $2,500 provided through a City of Bellingham Small and Simple grant to construct a schoolyard garden.
Other points to consider are:
Approximately 190 children walk and 120 students ride two buses to Happy Valley Elementary. According to City of Bellingham engineering staff, it would cost over $300,000 to create a safe school route to Happy Valley, an external cost that the school district has not factored in.
Approximately 20 children walk and 175 students ride three buses to Wade King Elementary. Taking into account mileage, fuel and driver expenses, this is a $40,710 annual cost to the school district.
Only one child walks to the new Cordata Elementary.
Approximately 165 children walk and 35 students ride one bus to Larrabee Elementary. This is an $11,815 annual cost to the school district. Larrabee has a safe school route, built five years ago; it is a walking-oriented school located near the residents that it serves. Larrabee is located within a dense and compact, walkable neighborhood.
46 percent of the children at Larrabee Elementary qualify for the free or reduced-price meal program, a program for families in poverty. Larrabee serves many low-income families, including children from two public housing developments in our neighborhood, a census block representing some of the lowest-income families in Whatcom County.
There is strong evidence that students in less-affluent communities perform better when they attend smaller schools. The lower the income of the community, the more student achievement is benefited by smaller schools. Small schools tend to narrow the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged youngsters by raising the achievement of the latter group.
We encourage the school district to continue modernization and retrofitting of Larrabee Happy Valley, and Sehome; to use 21st century technology to extend the life-cycle of existing buildings, and to make alterations to ensure accessibility. And we believe that keeping Larrabee Elementary open and active will preserve the vitality of our neighborhood.
Jim Spaich is president and Wendy Scherrer is a board member of the Happy Neighborhood Association. This column was written on behalf of the group's board of directors.