Blaine superintendent discusses bond initiative

Published on Thu, Apr 14, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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The ballots for the April 26 Blaine School District Capital Projects Bond initiative have been mailed, and the future of the district’s facilities is now in the hands of the voting public.

The $32 million would pay for extensive school facilities upgrades, including upgrades and additions to high school science and math, middle and elementary school facilities. It would also allow for the purchase of property in Birch Bay for a future school.

The bond would cost an additional 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, resulting in a total rate of $1.30 per $1,000 that will hold for 12 years.

The Northern Light recently sat down with superintendent Ron Spanjer and facilities supervisor Jim Kenoyer to gain a clearer understanding of the issues surrounding the bond.

TNL: What’s your explanation to any community members who might ask why the district is trying to build new facilities in these tough economic times?

Spanjer: I think we’ve been very candid about our awareness and appreciation of [the economy]. We certainly haven’t tried to take a counter position on that. The economy is really struggling and continues to struggle.

This particular project has been a long-term need in the Blaine school district. When we ran [the bond] in 2008 it was a bit behind the curve on when it ideally would have been in place.

The facilities deficits that are in play have been prevalent for quite some time, particularly for science lab space, multiple access points on campus, the lack of efficiency in terms of moving kids across campus when they have to travel halfway across campus or a significant distance away from the high school. We’ve wrestled with those issues in Blaine for quite some time, so this is one of those projects that ultimately has to be done.

TNL: How will the bond help the district deal with its budget issues, if it will at all?

Spanjer: As the legislature is wrapping up, school districts and all public entities are taking a pretty big hit. If we’re able to get the bond passed we could realize about $250,000 in at least one year of relief in terms of the general fund. We could pay back election costs and some of the planning costs involved in the initial designs.

Some of our anticipated maintenance and operations costs at the high school that we have money in the budget for now, like lighting retrofits, wouldn’t have to come out of the general fund. So in a time when dollars are so difficult to come by and programs are as much in jeopardy as they’ve ever been, every bit of relief can be helpful to keep programs in place.

TNL: What are some of the relatively smaller projects that are being addressed in this proposed initiative?

Kenoyer: At the primary school, it would mean enclosing the covered play area. On the north end of the elementary school, there are five classrooms that haven’t been touched since the early ‘80s, so they will be remodeled.

The elementary cafeteria will also be expanded. I think right now they’re doing five [lunchroom] seatings that are staggered because of the space limitations, which cuts into instructional time.

At the middle school, the TV studio space will be converted into special education space to get those students into the building they belong in. Also, property in Birch Bay will be purchased [for another school building].

TNL: If there were one fact about the state of the district’s facilities you could use to illustrate the larger need for the bond, what would it be?

Spanjer: I don’t want to minimize the importance of the relatively minor projects, all those things are important, but this is first and foremost about a high school facility that’s pretty much an anomaly on this campus.

As other school districts come in for events, we’ve had a lot of compliments about the state and quality of our facilities, and concurrently a lot of questions about what’s going on with that high school.

[The high school] is kind of an exception to the rule, if you will. What you see on the campus otherwise is indicative of the support the community has given to keep things upgraded and to keep pace with both program and community needs.

The high school classrooms in the early ‘70s just weren’t set up to accommodate what they’re being used for now.

TNL: What educational benefits will students realize from the new facility?

Spanjer: I don’t know if we can emphasis enough how important this is to math, science and career and technical education programs, what are commonly known as vocational programs, which offer kids the opportunity to develop technical skills in addition to more traditional academic skills.

We currently have a facility that is just not meeting those needs. The upside is we have a tremendous staff that has really made due out of an inferior facility, and we’ve gotten some tremendous results from kids.

TNL: How does the scope of the work for the current $32 million bond proposal differ from the $40 million 2008 proposal, which failed by 5 percent?

Spanjer: The school board’s emphasis for the new bond was core instructional space (classrooms), and I think that primarily defines the difference. Specifically what came off the $40 million list were improvements at the Pipeline fields, which would have involved either septic or sewer, and an upgrade to our transportation facility, which is significantly undersized. The stadium and field would have also been upgraded.

TNL: How can people gain more firsthand knowledge of the existing facilities as well as the proposed work?

Spanjer: We would hope they would continue to request tours. We’d welcome the opportunity to walk anybody through, and we’ve been doing some of that on a one-to-one basis.

I think the facility speaks for itself. We haven’t had anybody say, “You don’t need [the improvements],” particularly if they see it.
The question marks are more around the timing and economic concerns. We encourage people to contact us and stop by the high school. We’d be wiling to do tours anytime. If you see what the cafeteria is like at lunchtime and you see where kids have to sit, it’s not ideal.

TNL: Will the community have input into the design process, once the voters have approved the bond initiative?

Spanjer: We will have time to establish a meeting opportunity for the community to learn about the planning that has already taken place. There’s been a fair amount of engagement in the last three or four years over design elements.

People have gone through and said have you thought of this or that, and that’s part of the process to make sure we’re not missing something.

So we will certainly set up opportunities for those interested to see where we are in the process and offer their thoughts. We won’t be making major structural changes [to the design based on community input] but we will welcome program suggestions.

Kenoyer: One of the problems we have is putting out a dollar figure. We know what things cost, but once you have that budget figure, you don’t have a whole lot of flexibility in having a community group come in and change it.

Design started in 2004 and there was a community group that discussed the conceptual designs. All along the way it’s been a pretty open process.