Board members consider Birch Bay school

By Ian Ferguson

The Blaine school district board of directors agreed to look into buying property for an elementary school in Birch Bay if a $45 million bond initiative passes the general vote in February, but stopped short of removing or changing a planned addition of eight kindergarten classrooms to the
Blaine campus.

For Birch Bay residents who have been seeking a school in Birch Bay, it was a let down.School_SG-1

“We’re not against improving education, and we’re not against the bond initiative, but the addition of permanent kindergarten classrooms at the elementary school further pushes off the need for a school in Birch Bay,” said Jeff Carrington, one of a group of concerned Birch Bay residents advocating a local school who attended the school board’s October 27 meeting.

Pat Jerns read a statement from the group urging the board to support the development of elementary educational facilities in Birch Bay by immediately starting work on a transitional plan, and removing the expansion of elementary classrooms on the Blaine campus from the bond proposal.

“We are not anti-schools,” Jerns said. “To the contrary; we are pro-schools, but we feel strongly that a school in our community is necessary. We do not come to you in a combative manner seeking a win-lose scenario. We come to you seeking a collaborative process to work together to find a win-win scenario and a mutually agreeable outcome.”

With the opportunity to recommend adjustments to the existing bond proposal, the board chose not to act.

“I will say that I appreciate you guys coming here, and I would be more than happy to recommend the board work with the group on the first two items, [developing a school in Birch Bay and working on a transition plan,] but the third item, [eliminating expansion of kindergarten classrooms at Blaine Elementary School,] I would not support at this time,” said board member Campbell
McCluskey.

After deciding against changing the bond proposal, the board unanimously supported a resolution to “pursue identification of a funding source and subsequent acquisition of a building site,” for a school in Birch Bay contingent on the February 2015 bond initiative passing.

Superintendent Ron Spanjer explained after the meeting that the resolution is not just a stopgap to put off confronting the issue.

“If the February 2015 bond passes, we anticipate there being enough flexibility in the general fund to support property acquisition in Birch Bay,” Spanjer said.

Funding to cover the costs of operating the school, however, could be a long time coming. Those funds depend on district-wide enrollment numbers, and enrollment has declined in recent years. Enrollment in the Blaine school district dropped from 2,293 students in 2005 to 2,017 in the current school year.

“We certainly understand the desire and the need for a school in Birch Bay, but if we built something that we can’t afford to operate, that wouldn’t be acceptable either,” Spanjer said.

“The operating costs alone for a separate school in Birch Bay would be between $400,000 and $500,000 every year. The only way we would be able to support that is if we were to close other programs or if our enrollment were to go up. By passing this resolution, we can begin to look into acquiring a property in Birch Bay so that we’ll have a place to build a school if and when our enrollment increases.”

The demand for a school in Birch Bay is nothing new.

“It’s been on every Birch Bay community plan dating back to 1977,” Carrington said.

Without a primary or elementary school in the community, young children are bused to the Blaine campus, with some routes taking as long as an hour.

“Birch Bay has the highest childhood obesity rates in the county, and having our kids spend two hours sitting on a bus everyday doesn’t help,” asserted Billy Brown, another member of the Birch Bay citizens group that attended the meeting.

The group pointed out that without an elementary school, the community also lacks the infrastructure that goes with it, including a library, computer room and playgrounds.

“The educational infrastructure needs to be spread throughout the district,” Carrington said.

According to the U.S. Census, the Birch Bay Census Designated Area population grew 69.6 percent from 2000 to 2010, with 8,413 residents in 2010 compared to 4,684 in Blaine. The community group has estimated that approximately 60 percent of students in the Blaine school district come from the Birch Bay area.

While not disputing the figures offered by the group, Spanjer pointed out that the funding to pay for operating any individual school depends on district-wide enrollment numbers and the money to build a school would have to be raised by a district-wide bond measure.

The planned addition of eight kindergarten classrooms on the Blaine campus is to accommodate full-day kindergarten, which is required by a state mandate and will receive state-level funding for additional teachers in two years.

“Those classrooms are planned for kindergarten students who are already there and who will be getting twice as much class time,” Spanjer said.

The facility review task force, an ad hoc group of residents from throughout the school district that was formed in 2013 to determine the facility needs to be covered by the proposed bond, considered the addition of kindergarten classrooms a high priority. The rest of the proposed $45 million would go towards urgent needs including repairs, maintenance and a much-needed renovation of Blaine High School.

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