By Ian Ferguson
Local voters will soon decide the fate of a $45 million bond measure to rebuild Blaine High School and update the aging Blaine school district campus in Blaine.
A rebuild of the high school, which was built in 1971 with a modular layout and no cafeteria, makes up $38,094,000 or 84.6 percent of the total bond. With ballots in the mail to voters this week, superintendent Ron Spanjer and business manager Amber Porter sat down with The Northern Light to explain why the needs addressed by the bond are urgent, and to answer questions about how it would affect the community if passed.
The bond measure is on the February 10 special election ballot. Ballots are due back by February 10. For the measure to pass, it would require approval from at least 60 percent of voters registered within the geographic boundaries of Blaine school district. A sample ballot can be viewed online at tinyurl.com/pcvbxl2.
Editor’s Note: In their answers, Spanjer and Porter reference a video highlighting the limitations of the current high school facilities. That video can be found at the bottom of this story.
What are the most substantial projects being proposed in this bond measure, and how were those projects determined?
Ron Spanjer (RS): In terms of priority projects, [rebuilding] Blaine High School has been a long-term focus of the community and of facility groups since before I arrived here nine years ago, as well as in each of the bond issues in 2008 and 2011.
The Blaine school district communities of Point Roberts, Blaine and Birch Bay have over the years been very consistently supportive of key facility initiatives, but this larger project, the high school project, has been a tougher hurdle to get over. We feel that the recession created some unique challenges for the Blaine school district and the broader community, with a lot of people out of work, key challenges with finances, etc., so we weren’t able to get over the 60 percent threshold in those prior elections.
One of the commitments we had made in 2012 was to not come back [with a new bond proposal] until the 2012 bond [to build the science building] and any prior bonds were rolling off of the tax burden. That occurs in 2016, so with this election we’re able to stage the transition to the new bond with the expiration of the old bonds. That results in establishing a stable tax rate.
We also said we would come back with the most urgent issues, and as I’ve just reiterated, that high school project has been an urgent issue for a long time. The other key urgent issue, along with the approximately $38 million high school, is the all-day every day kindergarten capacity, and we’ve talked about how that $4 million piece is in response to assuring that we have the space available when the state steps forward with funding for the all-day every-day kindergarten. That project doesn’t respond to new students, it responds to new programs. The students are already attending Blaine Primary School, and we think we’re in line to receive state funding for all-day every-day kindergarten in the 2016/17 school year, so the objective is to establish the space for that.
With those two projects alone, we’re close to 90-95 percent of the overall bond. And then the other projects are really about looking at what was on prior bonds, and determining which are the most critical to be done. The bigger projects are around Blaine Elementary School, taking care of some of the classrooms that didn’t go through the prior remodel or upgrade, and then doing something about a cafeteria in the middle school that is, as people have seen if they get a chance to look at the video, a pretty confined space. So those are the major projects.
A representative committee from across the district met over a series of dates to shore up what seemed most feasible, with the overlying variable being, “How do we keep the tax rate constant?”
What would be the impact on overcrowding at the high school?
Amber Porter (AP): The current high school was made for 350 students, and we have 650 right now. To deal with that issue, we have high schoolers going across campus to take some of their classes. They go out of the high school to take art and vocational classes. They go to the middle school to take band and choir. They’re carrying their band instruments out in the rain sometimes to go to those classes.
The other thing the high school didn’t have when it was built was a cafeteria. The video on the website shows how long the lines are in the middle school cafeteria, because that’s where they have to go for lunch. So you have 650 kids needing to get lunch, and that cafeteria wasn’t designed for that many kids either.
You can probably fit 300 people in there and it’s going to feel really full. There’s not enough seating. Kids are sitting in the hallways, going to their favorite teacher’s classroom, sitting on the floor and just finding wherever they can to eat lunch. It wasn’t designed for the growth we’ve had and the high school doesn’t really accommodate the programs we’re trying to offer.
RS: Another variable for overcrowding in the high school is the new state mandated 24-credit requirement. The current state requirement is for 20.5 credits, our district requirement right now is for 22 credits and the new state requirement is going to be for 24 credits. Reciprocally that creates more classes; we’ll have more classes in the arts, foreign languages, lab sciences and additional core and technical education courses.
It’s fortuitous, when this bond issue passes, that we’ll have increased space on the high school campus, not just to alleviate what Amber has mentioned in terms of the current burden on the district facilities, but also be able to accommodate the increased number of courses that we see coming down the pathway for high school students. So that’s another piece of the overcrowding; that it’s not just more kids, it’s more courses that are going to have to be offered to these high school students.
How will staff and student safety be improved by this project?
AP: There are a few smaller projects included in the measure – seismic upgrades, communication system improvements, cameras and electronic doors, so those types of projects will help, but the biggest issue is the layout and design of the high school as a whole. Right now, we have 46 exterior entrances because many classrooms have their own doors to the outside.
We are hoping to reduce the number of access points down to about two or three so we can monitor who is coming in and who is going out of the building. Supervision becomes difficult when you have students who have to go clear across campus to take different classes and to the middle school to eat lunch and they’re eating outside. It’s hard to find people. Those dozens of access points are a safety issue, but they’re also inefficient in terms of heating and cooling.
RS: We had an example today where we had a campus-wide lockdown drill, and this communication systems issue came to the fore. As it stands, you initiate a drill from the district office over a phone system that has intercom capacity into certain areas of the campus.
Then we have a two-way radio system that we’ll subsequently announce it on so that we can get into areas that aren’t linked to the intercom system, and then we have a district cell phone system that goes out to the administrative team. To announce a drill or an actual emergency, we have to go through all these layers of communication.
That can happen fairly quickly, but there are concerns that on a campus of this magnitude with this many staff and students, we really need to get to a point where with the flip of one switch we can be announcing to all of these buildings concurrently what’s taking place.
We realize the urgency of being able to simultaneously get that message out to all buildings, all staff because time is of the essence in these situations. There are additional components of the measure such as electronic doorlocks, camera upgrades, seismic upgrades that will also increase staff and student safety.
What other issues will be addressed?
RS: I think one key piece again for the high school is really being able to adapt and support the educational expectations of the programs. Technology is a huge part of that. It’s not unique to Blaine – the advancements in technology have really increased the need for wireless access, the need for continuity between classrooms, student access and staff access.
We’ve really reached technological capacity in the current structure. We’ve maxed out how we can patchwork or dovetail these systems together, and a variety of educational issues are compromised at the high school in relationship to what we would call a more state of the art facility to support those. The infrastructure just isn’t there. It’s critical for to our kids to be competitive through their educational opportunities.
AP: Comfort is an issue as well. We’re in need of an HVAC system that can effectively heat and cool the buildings. There are classrooms that are getting over 80 degrees when the sun comes out, even in the early spring or late fall.
So you have 30 teenagers in one classroom trying to learn math and it’s over 80 degrees, with the ventilation system running at full capacity. Teachers bring in those oscillating fans and leave the door open. It’s not working and it’s not efficient.
And then I think the overall layout and appearance will benefit. People should be able to find the high school office from the street. It should look like an entrance. Aesthetically, the building is out of style; it was built in 1971, and it shows.
RS: In that timeframe, a lot of modular facilities were built because they were more economical. If you didn’t have to include hallways you could utilize that space for classrooms, but it really didn’t take into account the context of our climate and the safety needs.
The cohesiveness of the programs is really compromised by these separate modular buildings, and we’ve tried to reinforce that they weren’t necessarily built for the long-term duration. You’ve got stick framing and materials that were very economical and quick to put up, but it wasn’t necessarily built to last and it certainly wasn’t versatile in terms of the needs we have. This new high school will be built for the long term.
What is a basic timeline for completing the high school?
AP: It should be open for the 2019/2020 school year. The year before that we’ll start to move some classes into the new portion of the building.
RS: We really have a four-year window for all of these projects. It will be staged starting with the 15/16 school year and culminate with the 19/20 school year. Part of that is the staging of the bonds. We have city council members who have asked for a bit more clarification on how we can reasonably assure that this tax burden is going to stay stable, and part of the answer to that is that we don’t sell $45 million worth of bonds all at one time.
It gets staged in three $15 million increments and rolls out over the first three years of the four-year period in that context.
The first building at the high school that we have to take care of is the two-story, roughly 80,000 square-foot structure that will be completely new. It will then house students while we go back and do the remodel and the razing of some of those pods and restructuring the facility.
The intent is to have the new pod at the primary school done for the 16/17 school year. That’s going to be a key priority, because we’re building it for the all-day every-day kindergarten program, which should be available then.
There’s some detailed planning that will have to be done. Conceptually we have a plan, but there are a lot of decisions that will have to be made around educational specifications. We’ll be getting an architect to come in to work with staff and the community and say, “We have this concept on paper from a square footage standpoint, we have a relatively solid cost structure in place, now what are some of the fine line details we want to make sure we’re responsive to?” People want ownership in that. It was key with the science facility and certainly will be a key piece with something of this magnitude. Once we get an architect selected, there will be involvement from staff and the community in making some of those design decisions.
What are the tax implications of the project?
AP: People should not be paying more than they are now. That was our goal in how we structured this, so we’re really asking the taxpayers to continue paying what they are paying now.
RS: The tax rate issue is a very important one, because the issue was there in 2011 when we got 59.4 percent of the vote. A lot was learned in that process and we continue to prioritize looking for ways to stabilize the tax rate.
Right now we’re in the range of $1.08 [per $1,000 of assessed property value] and the projections are that the rate for the new bond could drop down to about $1.04, but there are a lot of variables that really impact it. And then 10 years into the 20-year timeframe, the projection is that it steps down another $0.20, so in that $0.80-$0.85 range. At that time the reduced rate could potentially give some opportunity to the board, and the community, to consider whether or not there are any key issues or needs at that midpoint that should be taken into consideration.
The point we want to make is that it should be understood that we’re not necessarily set for 20 years, because there may be other needs that come along that have to be addressed, but that being said the context of prioritizing this as a stable tax rate outcome was high on the list and we’ve been able to accomplish this.
We don’t control the variables. We had some minor fluctuation when BP challenged their assessed valuation. We saw a fluctuation of maybe 4-5 cents per thousand when the county preemptively said, let’s make that adjustment. So there can be some variation in it, but what we’ve tried to do is structure this so that it stays constant.
AP: We’d be collecting the same dollar amount that we have been, but we wouldn’t know the assessed valuation of properties within the district. Hopefully that valuation will grow, there will be more property added to the district, and that would mean the rate for the individual taxpayer would go down.
RS: We think, and city council reenforced the other night, that there are a lot of really solid educational reasons to do this, but for the community and the district as a whole, there are some real economic benefits as well. Quality schools and facilities tend to draw business and growth to the area.
I think [city manager] Dave Wilbrecht and the city council did a good job of highlighting that businesses coming in want to see what’s going on with the schools in their community. Amber mentioned earlier that the vision you get when you look at Blaine schools is not one that’s overly encouraging. It stands out as being in great need. Of course people congregate to the Performing Arts Center, but then they say,
“But what’s happening over here? What’s the game plan?” The rest of it doesn’t quite
AP: You feel like you’re stepping back in time when you go on campus.
RS: It’s not our call to say whether or not it’s an economic factor in the community, but others have suggested that it is. The location of the campus on that commercial route is front and center, and it’s highly visible.
The school district came within 1 percent of passing a similar measure in 2011. What are the key factors that should assure this measure gets passed?
AP: In 2011 we were proposing a tax increase, but we’re not this time.
RS: That increase would have been in the neighborhood of 30-40 cents per thousand at least, over a 15-20 year bond. Now we’re in a much better position to assure for a stable tax rate that doesn’t increase the individual tax burden.