School district may rent space to house Whatcom students

BELLINGHAM - Renting space is one of three long-term scenarios being considered for housing Whatcom Middle School students and staff after this school year.

On Monday, Jan. 11, the Bellingham School District launched another online survey to gather input on where Whatcom students and staff should be housed during the 2010-11 school year and beyond while their school is rebuilt.

The second survey focuses on three scenarios:

renting a non-district facility;

having students in eighth grade attend high school while sixth and seventh graders attend middle school;

or having sixth-graders attend elementary school while seventh- and eighth-graders attend middle school.

The three scenarios were selected by a team of district officials and Whatcom teachers and administrators. The team made decisions using public input from the first round of surveying, as well as input from experts on school building codes, insurance, renovation costs and more.

The first round of surveying included 10 suggested scenarios of where students and teachers could be housed, ranging from keeping everyone together to splitting and integrating all students and teachers into the existing middle schools. More than 650 surveys were completed by parents, students, teachers and community members, with the most support thrown behind the option that kept the school together in a rented facility.

"We felt that these were the best ones. We heard loud and clear the community would like Whatcom together next year at a non-district location ... that's a scenario we're going to pursue," said acting Superintendent Sherrie Brown. "We feel like these (other) two scenarios will accomplish keeping instructional teams together as much as possible."

Whatcom students and staff have been split by grade level among three other Bellingham schools since the middle school was severely damaged in a Nov. 5 fire. District officials hope to have the school rebuilt and open by fall of 2012.

Brown plans to make her relocation recommendation to the school board at the end of the month.

Scenario 1: Leasing and possibly renovating a nondistrict facility to keep Whatcom together as a school.

Brown said this is her, and the team's, first choice, but only if a site can be found that meets all the criteria needed for a school and doesn't cost beyond what insurance will cover.

District officials have been visiting potential sites and are using a checklist to evaluate each one. Criteria include code issues ranging from bathrooms to lighting to ventilation to fire alarms, plus education issues ranging from food service to acoustics to how well students can learn in the environment. The distance from where Whatcom students live and the impact to site neighbors are also being considered.

At this point, Brown does not know how much the insurance company will cover for renovation or leasing costs, but she does not believe that "substantial renovation" would be covered. Brown expects to have more information about insurance coverage before making her final recommendation to the school board.

Several sites were suggested by the public during the first round of surveying, however, some of them are not viable.

All local colleges and universities have been contacted but have no available space. District officials have also visited the empty retail buildings on Meridian across from Bellis Fair mall and have eliminated them due to several factors, including the extensive renovation needed. The Roeder building, which houses the district offices, also has been eliminated because it has not received seismic upgrades and doesn't meet modern-day code requirements.

The locations of potentially feasible sites have not been released due to the possible impact on lease negotiations.

"We're looking hard, and all I can say is we're looking at several different places right now," Brown said. "A main concern is money. In this budget environment, it would not be very prudent to go to the board and say, 'I want to select a place that will cost us a whole lot of money.'"

Scenario 2: Grade 8 attends high school and grades 6 and 7 attend middle school.

In this scenario, suggested to the district in the first survey, Whatcom eighth-graders would attend Bellingham or Squalicum high schools, based on their attendance areas, essentially getting them into their high school a year early.

Students would attend from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on the high school schedule. Whatcom teachers would remain in their instructional teams. Students could have access to some high school electives and programs, and some students would be able to take advantage of accelerated learning opportunities. However, students would continue to participate in middle-school athletics.

Seventh-graders would attend Fairhaven Middle School and sixth-graders would attend Shuksan Middle School. In both instances, teachers would remain in their teaching teams.

However, there is no guarantee all Whatcom students would stay together. Class placement would be based on enrollment, and while staff would try to keep all the Whatcom students together in their own classes, instead of mixing with Shuksan or Fairhaven students, there could be some "crossover," Brown said.

Under this plan, students who are sixth-graders in 2010-11 would remain at Shuksan for their seventh-grade year. Sixth-graders in 2011-12 would attend Fairhaven.

Scenario 3: Grade 6 attends elementary school and grades 7 and 8 attend middle school.

In this scenario, sixth-graders would attend Geneva Elementary School. They would have middle school electives and also have access to middle school athletics.

Seventh-graders would attend Shuksan Middle School and eighth-graders would attend Fairhaven Middle School. Students who are seventh-graders in 2010-11 would remain at Shuksan for their eighth-grade year. Seventh-graders in 2011-12 would attend Fairhaven.

At all sites, teachers would remain in their teaching teams. As in scenario 2, there could be some classes mixing students from the schools.


To comment on the three relocation plans or to see the criteria being used to evaluate potential relocation sites, go to click here.

Input must be received via the online survey no later than 8 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19.