Birch Bay residents seek elementary school

by Ian Ferguson

As the Blaine school board is working out the finer details of a bond request to voters in February, a group of Birch Bay residents has taken issue with the proposal to add eight new classrooms to the Blaine Primary School.

“Continual expansion of elementary classrooms and programs on the Blaine school campus simply postpones the need for elementary classrooms and programs in the community of Birch Bay,” said Doralee Booth in a written statement to the board. Booth, along with several other Birch Bay residents, attended the school board’s regular meeting September 22.

Prior Blaine School District bond initiatives in 2008 and 2011 included the purchase of property in the Birch Bay area to prepare for construction of a school in the future. Neither bond initiative passed the required 60 percent approval from voters. Many Birch Bay residents were surprised to find that the current bond initiative does not include the purchase of property in Birch Bay for a future school.

Currently, Birch Bay is the fastest growing urban growth area in Whatcom County, with 41.1 percent growth from 2000 to 2010 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Over the same time period, Blaine’s population grew by 19.5 percent. As of 2010, Birch Bay residents outnumbered Blaine residents nearly two to one, with 8,413 residents compared to 4,684 residents in Blaine.

At a Blaine Chamber of Commerce meeting September 3, superintendent Ron Spanjer explained that the problem with building a school in Birch Bay is that the district doesn’t have the enrollment numbers to support splitting up the populations of students. Past conversations about building an elementary school in Birch Bay were based on enrollment projections that overestimated population growth within the school district.

“Back in 2006 when we looked at this, our enrollment projection was that by 2014 we’d be at 2,765 full-time students. Our current enrollment is about 2,050 so we’re about 715 students below what was projected,” Spanjer said. “Even if the public were to approve building another school in the Birch Bay area, we couldn’t afford to operate it right now because we don’t have the enrollment to support it.”

The current bond initiative includes items that were deemed urgent or high priority by the facility planning task force, which included a representative from Birch Bay. According to the task force’s final report, the group was asked to determine what items from prior bonding initiatives were most urgent, “with the exception of the purchase of property in the Birch Bay area.”

A vast majority of the $45 million bond proposal is given over to a remodel of the high school, and $4 million is earmarked for an expansion to the Blaine Primary School. The additional wing, a pod of eight classrooms, is intended to support all day/every day kindergarten.

Washington is one of 29 states that have agreed to provide funding for districts to cover the cost of staffing all-day kindergarten. Blaine is on track to receive funding in 2017, and the district is hoping to have enough classroom space to offer full-time kindergarten when funding becomes available.

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of full-time kindergarten to early childhood development. According to the National Center for Education statistics, 61 percent of all schools in the U.S. had begun offering a full-time kindergarten option by the 1998/99 school year.

The Birch Bay Community Plan adopted as a Whatcom County subarea plan in 2004 expressed the desire for an elementary school in Birch Bay: “The Birch Bay community is very much interested in having an elementary school located in the Birch Bay area. About one half of the enrollment at the Blaine School District is made up of students coming from the Birch Bay area,” the plan states.

On September 8, representatives from the school district met with members of the Birch Bay community to keep the conversation about a future school in Birch Bay moving forward. At the school board’s regular meeting September 22, Spanjer sought guidance from board members about the issue, leaving open the option to pursue property acquisition in Birch Bay if voters approve the bond initiative. Property acquisition would depend on identifying a funding source.

The issue will be brought up again at the school board’s next meeting October 16. “We’re committed to continuing our discussion with the Birch Bay citizens group,” Spanjer said.

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