Voters are being asked to approve a $155 million bond to pay for a wide array of projects that include replacing three elementary schools built in the 1950s in north Bellingham, a growing part of the city.
The 20-year bond is on the Tuesday, Feb. 13, ballot.
To pass, the measure must get at least 40 percent of the voter turnout from the November general election and, of that, 60 percent approval – or at least 7,946 “yes” votes.
A task force made up of staff, parents, students and community members recommended the projects.
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The biggest portion, $89 million, will be to replace the existing Alderwood, Parkview and Sunnyland elementary schools with bigger modern buildings – enough to hold 400 to 450 students each. Current enrollment at each school is about 300, according to the Bellingham School District.
“That’s probably the cornerstone of the bond is those three elementary schools,” said Greg Baker, superintendent for the Bellingham School District.
The schools were selected because of their age and their proximity to growth in north Bellingham, school district officials said.
“Great teaching can happen in all types of facilities,” Baker said, “but it can be even better when surrounded by really good facilities.”
Impact on property taxes
As for what the bond’s approval could mean for Bellingham property taxes, school officials said it wouldn’t increase the total tax rate paid locally for the city’s schools.
“We worked hard on the financing of this,” Baker said.
Here’s what school officials mean:
▪ The overall tax rate specifically for Bellingham schools in 2017 was nearly $4.81 per $1,000 of assessed value – about $1,443 in annual property taxes for a $300,000 house.
That includes existing bond and levy rates.
▪ The overall tax rate is expected to drop to $4.54 per $1,000 of assessed value this year, or to $1,362 in annual property taxes for a $300,000 house.
▪ In 2019 – the year the local school tax rate would reflect the $155 million bond, if approved – it is expected to decrease to roughly $3.75 per $1,000 of assessed value and stay there through 2021.
That means $1,125 annually for a $300,000 house.
“We were intentional in our planning of this bond, and it will not cause the local tax rate to go up. In fact, the local tax rate will decrease,” said Jackie Brawley, Bellingham School District spokeswoman.
A host of factors were part of the expected drop.
Those include refinancing bonds for lower interest rates and paying off debt; a school bus levy ending this year; planning for the technology levy to be higher in 2017 and 2018 and then dropping in later years; and the state reducing allowable local levy collection in 2019, school officials said.
Still, the bond request comes as Whatcom County property owners brace for a big tax increase caused by a strong real estate market and the impact of the McCleary decision, in which the Supreme Court ordered Washington state to fully fund public schools.
To comply, state lawmakers decided in July to raise property taxes statewide in the first year, although most property owners will see a tax cut under that plan, starting in 2019, because of the restriction on local levies.
In Whatcom County in 2018, the McCleary tax hike will mean a $280 increase in property taxes for property with an assessed value of $250,000.
Which makes the timing of concern to Bellingham school officials.
“I am worried but you can’t control what the state does,” Baker said. “What I can control is what we ask for locally.”
Added Brawley: “It’s complicated because there are still some unknowns at the state level. While there is uncertainty in Olympia, schools rely on local support to meet critical facility needs.”
What the bond would do
For voters who want a breakout of the impact of the $155 million bond alone, here’s that piece:
▪ This year’s bond tax rate is $1.05 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $315 of the overall local tax rate for Bellingham schools. That’s for a $300,000 house.
▪ If voters OK the bond, the estimated bond tax rate would rise to $1.53 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2019, or $459 of the overall rate. It would rise slightly the following two years.
▪ That would mean a $144 increase for the bond tax rate starting next year.
But, as Bellingham school officials stressed, the bond’s approval wouldn’t increase the overall property tax rate for Bellingham schools.
If approved, the bond would pay for an array of projects:
▪ New buildings for Alderwood, Parkview and Sunnyland schools, which are tight on space and, because of their age, don’t meet standards for energy efficiency or technology, district officials said.
The new buildings, at a cost of $89 million, could be built next to the existing ones, allowing students to continue to go to their schools during construction.
At Parkview, the new cafeteria and gym paid for by a previous bond would be incorporated into the new building.
▪ $34.5 million for turf fields for soccer, baseball and softball at Bellingham, Sehome and Squalicum high schools; a tennis court at Bellingham and Squalicum high schools, additional gym space at Shuksan Middle School; and improvements to some elementary school fields so parent organizations don’t have to raise money for needs such as better drainage.
▪ $19.5 million to complete the projects that were part of a previous bond. That includes for the new Sehome High School, Central Kitchen and improvements to the Transportation Garage.
The biggest chunk, or $16 million, would go to finish construction of Sehome High, which was part of the $160 million bond approved by Bellingham voters in 2013.
School officials said the additional dollars were needed because construction costs have increased since the original estimates were made in 2012, and Sehome faced new regulations for stormwater, electrical, mechanical and building regulations.
▪ $6.4 million for improvements that include roofs, windows, heating and ventilation systems and flooring for all schools.
▪ $3.6 million for safety and security that include lock-down shades for classrooms, door-locking systems, and security cameras for building exteriors and some common areas indoor, such as hallways.
▪ $1.8 million for cabling and better infrastructure for technology. It also would pay for reader boards for schools that want them.
The amount of votes needed for the bond measure to pass was changed at 2:24 p.m. on Feb. 7, 2018.
Tuesday, Feb. 13, is the deadline to return special election ballots, which must be postmarked by that date – a 50-cent stamp is required – or deposited in an official ballot drop box by 8 p.m. that day.
Find a list of drop box locations at whatcomcounty.us/auditor by clicking on “Voters” in “Elections” or check the voters’ pamphlet enclosed with the ballot.
Two measures going before voters.
The levy needs a simple majority to pass.