Larrabee Elementary closure a motivator for challengers in school board race

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 21, 2013 

2013 elections

THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - The Bellingham School Board's vote to close Larrabee Elementary School was a driving force in the decision of two challengers for a seat on the board in the Aug. 6 primary.

The top two vote-getters advance to the Nov. 5 general election.

Hue Beattie, 66, and John Blethen, 69, are running against incumbent Steve Smith, 50, who voted along with three other board members to close the 93-year-old school at a meeting this spring. Scott Stockburger was the only board member to vote against the closure; he's running unopposed this year.

Beattie said that he decided to run for Smith's seat after attending a public meeting where more than 30 community members spoke against the Larrabee closure and then seeing the board vote to close the school the next day. He said he felt like the school board ignored the issues of the neighborhood, and after not being able to get others to run, he decided to do it himself. If elected, he said he'd try to get the board to reconsider Larrabee's closure, which is set for the end of the 2013-14 school year.

"I would've liked them to have gotten together with past graduates of Larrabee and parents and come up with some ideas to improve the building," Beattie said, noting that they could have added an elevator to make the school accessible and added some classrooms to better serve students, or the district could have bought property nearby to expand the school.

The closure was a motivator for Blethen as well, who said he's also concerned about the fate of other smaller elementary schools in the district and the shift from smaller, neighborhood schools to a focus on larger facilities.

"It's not the only school I think is potentially jeopardized," he said, including Parkview and Columbia elementaries as schools he thought were at risk.

Smith disagreed, noting a $4 million renovation of Parkview is on the bond that is set to go before district voters in November.

As far as Larrabee is concerned, Smith said he voted to close the school after looking at all the data put together by the district's Facilities Planning Task Force, which recommended the closure as part of its 10-year-plan for the district. Included in that data was the fact that the Washington State Board of Education's Achievement Index ranked Larrabee as "struggling" - its lowest rating - for its low-income students and minority students in the 2011-12 school year.

"When you look at how it's performing with students and you look at the savings, it was a clear decision," Smith said of the closure. "It was hard because it was an emotional decision, but I don't think I could go any other way."

Another focal point in the election is a $160 million bond that will go before district voters in the November general election. Beattie and Blethen both think the bond is too big. Two of the largest projects included in it are a $73 million rebuild of Sehome High School and a $19 million rebuild of Happy Valley Elementary School.

Beattie said he thought those costs were too high but had no concrete ideas on how to lower them. He said the district should involve the neighborhood in the planning for those rebuilds (district officials have said community involvement will be part of the process).

Blethen said that Sehome and Happy Valley need to be addressed, but perhaps Happy Valley could be done incrementally. He also thought that the district should look at other options for its district office, rather than the $17 million remodel that's included in the bond.

Smith agreed that the bond is large, but when you break it down by project, he said they all have strong merits for them. He said the item getting the most criticism is the district office project and that discussions are ongoing on how to do that project for less money.

CANDIDATE QUESTIONNAIRES

To see answers to more questions from these candidates plus their biographical information, go to our interactive Voter Guide. Hue Beattie refused to fill out the questionnaire. Information from candidates in the other local primary races - Bellingham and Blaine City Council seats - also can be found there.

Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com. Read her School Days blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/schools or follow her on Twitter at @bhamschools.

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