Ballots out this week for Ferndale's $125 million school bond

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 22, 2014 

FERNDALE - Residents in Ferndale School District are still asking questions about the size and cost of a school bond, just as ballots are set to go out.

The $125 million bond focused on Ferndale's high schools requires 60 percent voter approval. It comes with a significant property tax hike - about $344 a year for a home assessed at $200,000.

The bond includes rebuilding Ferndale High School to house 1,500 to 1,600 students; moving the transportation and maintenance center from the high school campus to the former Mountain View Elementary School property; and renovations at either North Bellingham or Mountain View elementary schools to provide a better home for 300 to 400 Windward High School students.

Ballots will be sent to voters Friday, Jan. 24, and must be returned by Feb. 11.

Superintendent Linda Quinn said she had talked to people who were concerned about using the Mountain View property for a transportation center, and she said that if someone could come up with a better site that the district could afford, that was an option officials would consider.

To come up with the cost to rebuild Ferndale High School, the district looked at the average cost per square foot for high schools built in the state in the last three years. It then multiplied that number - $285 - by the recommended 165 square feet per student.

That adds up to about $75 million for construction of the school, which doesn't include the cost of demolition of the current school, taxes, permits and an athletic complex on site that could be used by school sports and by the community.

"It's a large price tag, but when you look at what we could be getting with this bond, this is an investment in our community for generations to come," Ferndale High School Principal Aaron Kombol said.

The current buildings, which date back as far as 1933, can't handle the kind of technology needed for a modern education. Kombol is worried that could make it difficult for students to compete once they graduate. The school has been added to piecemeal over the years to increase capacity without ever addressing underlying infrastructure.

"If you look at our school, we have some real shortcomings in our spaces for kids. Our hallways are extremely cramped for kids. We don't have a main gathering spot. Our infrastructure is past end of life," he said. "We're basically putting Band-Aid after Band-Aid on our campus."

Though community members have brought up the option of remodeling the high school, Quinn said it wouldn't be cost-effective. A 2011 facilities assessment found that it would cost $36 million just to replace systems that are past their life cycle at the school, and engineers and project planners estimated that a remodel could cost anywhere from 70 percent to 110 percent of building new. That still would leave a sprawling campus with half a dozen buildings and more than 70 entrances - a safety issue that Kombol said keeps him up at night.

One of the most common questions from voters is what exactly is the design for the high school. The district has concepts for a two-story school and data to figure out the price, but officials did not want to spend the money on costly plans before the bond in case it doesn't get approved.

When the district put out a bond to rebuild Custer Elementary School, it paid for the designs beforehand. Those were useless when the bond wasn't approved. Quinn has told community members that she wants the district to learn from its mistakes.

To add an extra level of accountability to taxpayers, the district has proposed an oversight committee that would have access to plans and financials and report to the board and the community about progress of the bond. The committee would be headed by Ferndale Police Chief Michael Knapp and would be independent of the district, with members selected by the community.

The committee would provide community members a way to make sure that plans for the high school are reasonable and not too extravagant, Quinn said. Community members have been vocal that they don't want a "Cadillac" school when they could get by with a "Ford."

"We're hearing them," Quinn said. "And we're going to put in place a group that's going to say, 'No, you can't put in a fireplace.'"

Quinn used Meridian High School's recent rebuild as an example of a school that was beautiful and modern but not fancy. The school has nice lighting, good air quality and heating and cooling systems that work, and those simple things make a difference.

"There's quite a bit of data that those things impact learning," she said.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information about the Ferndale bond, go to the district's website at ferndale.wednet.edu and click on the "Bond Information" link on the top left of the page.

Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com.

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