Questions about $45 million school district bond answered

By Ian Ferguson

Local voters will soon decide the fate of a $45 million bond measure for capital improvements to Blaine school district schools, including the primary school in Point Roberts. 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 school bond.

With ballots already in the hands of voters, superintendent Ron Spanjer and business manager Amber Porter sat down with the All Point Bulletin 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 were mailed out in January and are due back by February 10. For the measure to pass, it requires 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 allpointbulletin.com.

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.

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.

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.

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.

What are the tax implications to property owners in the district?

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.

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