What to know as new Options High School gets built in Bellingham

This rendering shows the main entrance along Franklin Street for the planned Options High School building. The building will take up two acres to the east of Bellingham High School.
This rendering shows the main entrance along Franklin Street for the planned Options High School building. The building will take up two acres to the east of Bellingham High School. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Construction on a new Options High School is scheduled to start days after the school year comes to an end in mid-June.

Options offers smaller class sizes for students who don’t learn as well in traditional classroom settings. Since it was established in 1994, the school has been housed in seven portable buildings adjacent to the east of Bellingham High School.

A task force formed in 2012 developed a plan for building a permanent facility for the school to better serve its students.

Ron Cowan, assistant superintendent of facilities and operations from Bellingham Public Schools, answered questions about the upcoming construction.

Why is a new Options High School necessary?

Options began as a few portable buildings with a portable commode when it was built in 1994. It eventually grew to the current seven portable buildings, which now have indoor plumbing. The current school offers no science labs, gym, cafeteria or auditorium, requiring students to leave campus for those activities.

“We think it’s our duty to educate every kid in our community, not just the ones who like to go to a big high school,” Cowan said.

Who is funding the project?

Voters approved a $160 million bond in November 2013. A portion of that — $21 million — will fund the school. The project is still on track to be fully funded by the bond.

Where is the new school going?

The school will remain in the same location but will take up more space, about two acres. The school district owns the large warehouse space adjacent to the south of the school. The items stored in that space will move to new warehouse space the district has purchased in the Irongate area. The old warehouse will be razed to make way for the new school. The school’s small campus will encompass the area between Kentucky and Iowa streets, between Franklin Street and the Bellingham High School campus.

When does construction begin, and who is doing the work?

A groundbreaking is scheduled for sometime in June. The district’s board of directors, at a meeting in late May, chose Tiger Construction of Everson to build the school. The company has built several projects for the district, most recently the almost-completed new Happy Valley Elementary School.

Where will Options students go to school next year?

A northwest section of the Bellingham High School campus will house Options classes for the 2016-17 school year while the new school is built.

What will this new building look like and offer?

Designs by Zervas Architects depict a two-story, modern building with a main entrance on Franklin Street. The school will have 15 classrooms, in addition to a small gym, theater and a commons area, which also could serve as a cafeteria.

The building’s capacity will be 400 students. Most full-size Bellingham high schools, comparably, have a 1,200-student capacity.

The school also will offer career and technical education courses that it can’t provide in the current facility. The new building will offer a space, for example, for aerospace manufacturing courses.

Zervas Architects has worked with the district in the past, having designed Shuksan Middle School, Wade King Elementary School and other smaller projects.

Are there plans to have any crossover with Bellingham High School with athletics or academic curriculum?

No, Options has always been self-contained and has never offered athletics. That won’t change.

Concerns have been expressed about the property regarding a nearby gas line. Have those been addressed?

A natural gas line runs underground along Franklin Street and goes north into the Sunnyland Neighborhood. The district has had conversations with the Bellingham Fire Department about the school’s proximity to the line. The department has not expressed concern about it.

“Some folks have said we’re going to build the school on top of the gas line — that is not true, you can’t build on top of a gas line,” Cowan said. “It’ll be in the street, just like it is now.”

A complaint was filed with the Department of Ecology regarding what was being stored on the industrial property behind the portables. What came of that?

A report filed with Ecology alleged that several 55-gallon drums on the site were leaking toxic chemicals and that inappropriate materials were being stored inside a shipping container on the property. Ecology officials made two visits to the site and found the barrels to be empty. The district collects the barrels and converts them into covered trash bins to go outside schools.

Inside the container, officials found surplus school furniture and a lawn tractor. Ecology determined no further action was necessary.

Krista Kenner, an Ecology spokeswoman, confirmed the department’s two visits to the site, and the recommendation of no further action.

What’s happening to the pedestrian and cycling trail that runs between the fields at Bellingham High School and the property in question?

Signs posted along the trail erroneously indicating that the trail would close permanently. The district is working with the city of Bellingham’s Parks and Recreation Department to relocate the trail to run alongside Franklin Street. The new trail will have dedicated lanes for both pedestrians and cyclists. The change also allows the trail to intersect with Kentucky Street at a natural intersection.

What have been some other concerns expressed by neighbors? How have those been addressed?

Some nearby residents have questioned how parking will work at the new school. The plans provide more parking than is required by code by sharing parking with Bellingham High School.

Others have expressed concern that traffic in the area will become cumbersome. Many Options students get to school via public transit, cycling or walking, and don’t need parking. All students at the school are given free Whatcom Transportation Authority passes.

Some neighbors have suggested the site was too small. The district has said the location is perfect because of its proximity to the bus line.

The district held a meeting in mid-April with neighbors to hear the concerns. Most attendees, but not all, left satisfied with the district’s explanations, Cowan said.

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan