Both sides weigh in on proposed $160 million Bellingham school bond

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 23, 2013 

Sehome High School in Bellingham

The ivy-covered anchor at the entrance to Sehome High School in Bellingham.

THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - Among the ballot measures being brought before Bellingham School District residents in the Nov. 5 election is a proposed $160 million bond that would be paid by a property tax.

The 20-year bond would pay for a variety of construction projects throughout the district over the next 10 years, including a rebuild of Sehome High School, improvements to elementary schools, construction of a central kitchen, and renovation of the district office.

The district's most recent bond was approved in 2006 and is still being paid off. That $67 million bond included construction of two new elementary schools, a remodel of Shuksan Middle School, and other school improvements and maintenance. Voters also approved a maintenance and operations levy and a technology levy in 2012.

The current bond tax rate is 90 cents per $1,000 assessed value. If the new bond passes, the rate would increase in 2014 to $1.39, then decrease over the next five years, settling at $1.16 in 2019.

For the bond to pass, the district needs at least 40 percent of the voter turnout from last November's election, or at least 21,902 people, and 60 percent of those voters need to approve the bond.

Among people who oppose the bond is David Marshak, who has worked in education for about 40 years as a high school teacher, administrator, and as professor at Seattle University and an adjunct at Fairhaven College. One of the proposed projects Marshak takes issue with is the $73 million construction of a new Sehome High. Marshak said he believes a factory model school could quickly become outdated with advancing technology and opportunities for online learning.

"It's very unlikely that high school as we know it will endure for even 10 years, let alone 50 years," he said. "The whole idea you need a year to learn algebra or geometry has nothing to do with the capacity of teenagers to learn. It had to do with the fact when these schools were constructed 120 years ago, they had to create mass production, factory-type environments."

Marshak said the district should take maybe three to five years to work with the community to come up with creative solutions, particularly for the future of high school education, before building the new facilities.

Among the bond's supporters is Mark Peterson, co-chair of the Citizens' Advisory Committee that helped recommend projects on the bond to the School Board.

"We have a widespread need for facilities in our district," Peterson said. "We can't continue to kick the can down the road. It's not going to go away."

The advisory committee struggled with how to present the bond, and considered presenting two separate $80 million bonds, but a third-party survey found the majority of community members would rather pay for the projects at one time, Peterson said.

The June 2013 survey of 382 households was statistically valid, plus or minus 4 percent, Peterson said. When asked, "If you knew the $80 million bond would not include rebuilding Sehome, would you favor or not favor?" only 33 percent were in favor, he said.

"We've allowed for a lot of community input into shaping the bond," Peterson said. "We would fully expect that process to continue to construct our facilities in a way our community values."

Here's a list of the projects the proposed bond would pay for:

• Rebuild Sehome High for an estimated $73 million. The school could open as early as fall 2018.

• Rebuild Happy Valley Elementary for an estimated $19 million. The school could open as early as 2016.

• Build a new Options/Innovations High for an estimated $21 million to replace the current school that is housed in seven portable classrooms. The school could open as early as 2017.

• Renovate Lowell Elementary with a new gym, cafeteria and elevator for an estimated $6 million.

• Renovate Parkview Elementary to create a separate gym and cafeteria for an estimated $4 million.

• Renovate the district office on Dupont Street for an estimated $17 million.

• Update the district's bus barn to address issues with work space, poor physical condition and energy inefficiency for an estimated $2 million.

• Build a central kitchen on Sehome's campus to serve students at all schools for an estimated $4 million.

• Replace grass football fields with synthetic turf at Bellingham and Squalicum high schools for an estimated $5 million to make them more useable in wet weather. Sehome's fields are included in the school's construction project.

• Make such improvements as new roofs, windows, flooring, paint and energy-efficiency upgrades over the next several years at some elementary, middle and high schools for an estimated $5 million.

• Improve school safety with video, emergency radio communications and security for an estimated $2 million.

• Begin planning for possible outdoor learning or facility projects at the district's conservation site at Lake Whatcom for an estimated $2 million.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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