Monday, December 7, 2009

School district wants more budget savings

Fill out an online survey with ideas on how Bellingham School District can save more money for the 2010-11 school year. The deadline is noon Friday, Dec. 18. Go to the school district web site, which will give more information about the survey, how the district makes budget reductions, and has a link to the survey itself.

The district is also forming a new District Budget Advisory Committee (DBAC), comprised of representative staff, students, parents and community members. Parents or community members can apply by noon Friday, Dec. 18. For a link to the documents, click here.

According to the district's web site, "This committee will meet beginning in mid-January to work with the input and criteria, and make a recommendation to the Superintendent, who will work with district leaders to draft the Budget Savings Plan. The Superintendent will share the plan publicly for additional input before it is presented to the School Board for action. Actions by the state Legislature will have an impact on the budget process and timeline. "

Bellingham School District update on Lowell reopening, plans for Whatcom Middle School

This Thursday, Dec. 10, the Bellingham School Board will hear a report on the "Management Action Plan for Reopening Lowell Elementary School."

In previous news updates, the district has also said that the status of Whatcom Middle School, which burned in early November, would be discussed before the end of 2009. Officials are awaiting information on how badly damaged the building is, and also discussing the placement of students -- currently at dispersed among four schools. From the district's update page on Whatcom Middle School, "Q: When will a decision be made about whether Whatcom Middle School students and staff will stay at their current relocation sites for the remainder of the 2009-10 school year?
A. Superintendent Sherrie Brown will make a decision based upon input from a variety of stakeholder representatives and communicate that decision before winter break."
Go to the Whatcom update page by clicking here.

In addition to regular agenda items, will administer the oath of office to newly elected school board members, Steven Smith and Scott Stockburger, and reorganize and elect new board officers.

The meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Roeder Adminstration Building, 1306 Dupont St.

Friday, October 23, 2009

View video of City Council hearing on BSD's capital facilities plan

The portion of the Oct. 19 City Council meeting
hearing on capital facilities plan begins about half-way through the video.

In the end, the Bellingham City Council voted to have staff prepare an ordinance for the council to adopt by the end of the year. But the discussion by council members is important for the public to know about.

City Council members questioned the rate of growth used in the Bellingham School District's plan (which guides the district for the next six years), and questioned whether the district would be overbuilding infrastructure for an overly optimistic population estimate.

Louise Bjornson questioned if there was a plan to get rid of portables, and Assistant Superintendent Ron Cowan's response was, possibly, at Happy Valley and Birchwood elementaries ....

Stan Snapp asked why the district's plan didn't fit with the city's comprehensive plan, saying the city wants more infill, and noting that Wade King elementary doesn't feel like a neighborhood school. He also questioned if the planned Aldrich elementary could be a neighborhood school.

Cowan said he doesn't know how you would define a neighborhood, but the Aldrich site has a 300+ parcel possible development to the south, and a park to the north.
he refered to Parkview Elementary's 50th anniversary, and that when the school was built it looked like it was carved out of the forest ...

Mayor Pike said he'd like to work with the state to find alternative sites for new schools, so they wouldn't necessarily need to find 10 acre parcels. Bjornson noted that other cities might be interested in state changes too, because they value neighborhood schools too, that don't have 10 acres.

New links on this site, under "City of Bellingham documents," include the video of this meeting,and the meeting materials, which include minutes from the planning commission meeting Aug. 20 and written public comments.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sudden Valley school site discussed

The Bellingham School Board will hear a report Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009, about a possible site for a new school in Sudden Valley. The area recommended, at the old airport site, will make it a real neighborhood school for Sudden Valley, which currently sends its kids by bus to Geneva Elementary.

We very much support a new school for the Sudden Valley community, and the report includes good ideas for making it work in a challenging area (wetlands, geography, etc.)

Read the report by going to
Board Docs, on the left, select "10/22/09 agenda," then "Reports."
The meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. at the Roeder Administration Building, 1306 Dupont St.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Board approves plan to reopen Lowell

The Bellingham School Board voted unanimously Thursday, Oct. 8, to approve the management plan to reopen Lowell Elementary school in fall 2010. The district sent out this news release as the meeting ended.

After what we've all gone through this last year, what a breath of fresh air. From the news release:
"Our district and School Board wanted to plan to reopen Lowell as soon as our economic outlook would allow," says Acting Superintendent Sherrie Brown. "We have a clearer picture now of our budget situation for next school year, having recently settled multi-year bargaining agreements with some of our larger labor associations. Based upon the most recent state economic forecast for next school year, we currently anticipate the need for continued budget reductions for 2010-11. However, our School Board is making the commitment to reopen Lowell, to keep all of our current schools open in 2010-11, and find the budget savings elsewhere."

Click here to read the approved Lowell management plan. The board asked acting superintendent Sherrie Brown to provide updates regarding the progress of the plan, which is broken down month by month.

The board confirmed Lowell's principal will be Missy Ferguson, who was recognized at the meeting for her current school, Columbia Elementary's, consistent academic success.

The board voted to begin gathering community feedback regarding the search for a new superintendent.

This is all good news. Please, stay involved, participate in the superintendent search process, and continue to let the school district know how important these neighborhood schools are for the whole community.

Make Larrabee a preschool? Here's what school board candidates said at forum

Listening to the school board candidates speak Wednesday night was very informative, and offered stark contrasts for voters: the candidates for position 4, Rogan Jones and Steven Smith, offered opposing views on some key topics.

Rogan Jones supports keeping schools open, and making budget cuts more broad based across the district. He disagrees with the district’s decision to delay Lowell’s reopening for a year, and with the district’s process for budget cutting. He wants to work with Olympia to get the state to better fund its mandate to provide K-12 education.

Steven Smith agrees with the decision to keep Lowell closed this year, and once it opens he says Larrabee elementary is threatened. He wants to “repurpose” this neighborhood elementary school into a pre-K or at risk program. He also thinks these aren’t neighborhood schools, because the boundaries have been adjusted over the years to include outlying areas. He repeated many of the statements the current school board has made over the past year, like Lowell being “low hanging fruit” that was easy to cut, and that keeping schools open will mean more teacher positions will be eliminated and class sizes will get bigger. This is how the current school board scared people into accepting a scapegoat for the current budget.

The school board candidates’ forum, hosted by the South Hill Neighborhood Association and Fairhaven Neighbors, was attended by about 50 people. Two of the candidates (both seeking position 5 on the Bellingham School Board) were out of town and unable to attend, but sent representatives to speak on their behalf: Sean Stockburger stood in for his brother, Scott Stockburger, and Paula Weaver stood in for Michael Jay. The representatives offered opening statements, and answered questions as best they could, but it would be unfair to evaluate these candidates based on their representatives’ responses. Read their web sites, email them with questions, but we’ll have to wait for the next forum to hear a discussion on the issues.

However, Jones, a native Bellinghamster, businessman and member of the 2005 bond/levy committee, and Smith, a WWU accounting professor, made clear statements. Here are some of the community’s questions and the candidates’ answers (this is not a transcription, some answers are paraphrased).

Question: How do you feel about former superintendent Ken Vedra’s push to let individual schools brand themselves … some schools embraced it, some rejected it.

Smith: If each neighborhood has its own characteristics and culture, then the school should reflect that too. It’s OK for some schools to not be specialty schools, but a lot of teachers are excited about it.

Jones: Having centers of excellence and creativity is good, but tracking kids before their 10 is dangerous to me. We’re seeing Seattle moving away from this. We don’t want elementary magnet schools.

Question: What are some critical things that a successful superintendent candidate should have?

Jones: We need someone who will move here and be part of our community, who’s familiar with our values. Some more extroverted will help with communication, and we should look for the best candidate we can get.

Smith: I thought Vedra was good for the district. His family didn’t move here. We should be looking for someone who will push the envelope, in how students achieve.

Question: What do you know about the process of allocating money this last year?

Jones: When the budget came out, they thought they would be $4 million short, but they were only $500,000 short, and huge reason for this was no teacher raises.

Smith: Each school has a fixed cost, regardless of its size, which is about $400,000 to $500,000 per school. Each school also a discretionary fund, like for theses for schools, and some schools get Title 1 money.

Question: What do you know about reopening Lowell, and the future of Larrabee school?

Smith: The School Board will share its plan tomorrow night. If you look at the numbers, (last year) was a short blip. The $500,000 saved by delaying Lowell’s reopening paid for rehiring 63 teachers. I don’t think there was ever an issue of Lowell reopening.

Jones: Regarding the budget cuts, we have to consider that the state’s economy may continue to decline. These deep cuts are really divisive in our community. There are winners and losers, and the community started attacking each other. If we have to cut again, we need it to be a “thin layer of cheese” cut, more equitable. I’m going to speak up for that.

Smith: Do you agree it was the best decision to keep Lowell closed?

Jones: I would never have done cuts the way they did that. A lot of districts did broad-based cuts; cuts should be handled more broadly. I thought closing Lowell was a terrible decision.

Question: School Board members have been abrupt with people commenting, and they hide behind their computer screens. How will you handle that?

Smith: Board meetings are business meetings. It’s not really a forum for discussion. We need a venue, with a non-quorum of the board, to have a more give and take discussion.

Jones: Board meetings are set up that way, and are not democratic. But public meetings (held by the school board) didn’t allow public comment either. It was a big mistake. There needs to be a conversation.

Question: Class sizes have increased because of the budget; what would you do to keep class size small?

Smith: It’s a function of teachers vs. students, not space. We have enough space. The money for reducing class size, the state took away. There’s a lawsuit going on right now, which we’re all watching closely.

Jones: We’re watching Olympia for what will happen with that funding. The state spent 10 years figuring out how to make education better, and then didn’t fund it.

Question: What about using capital budgets to put additions on existing schools, instead of building new schools or adding portables?

Smith: Not sure about reshifting capital funds. But we’ve had an average half percent to 0.8 percent increase in students each year, with Geneva “busting out” and the northside schools, too, so Aldrich is needed. He said southside schools won’t be “busting out” once Lowell reopens.

Jones: All three southside schools will be at capacity when Lowell reopens. Aldrich was supposed to be built before Wade King. Aldrich is almost in the Meridian district, so it is possible they’ll get enrollment from Meridian.
But the intent of the 2005 levy was to preserve existing neighborhood schools.

Smith: Since 2003, we’ve added 250 students.

Jones: But when we passed the levy, we thought we’d have 1,000 more kids.

Question: What about building more, and smaller, elementary schools? Maybe Lowell and Larrabee aren’t “bursting” because they’re the right size.

Jones: The state requires 500-student new elementary schools. Our district follows that guideline, but it would be nice to break that rule and build a small school in Sudden Valley. The state rules are designed for finances, not students, and should be addressed.

Smith: The state developed a model school for funding and it is biased against small schools.

Question: What about Lowell reopening, and do you foresee problems for Larrabee?

Smith: When Lowell reopens, Larrabee will be threatened because it won’t have enough students. One thing is, Lowell’s attendance area pulls from the York neighborhood (near Carl Cozier elementary). So is Lowell a neighborhood school? You have a kid going to Lowell, but their neighbor is going to Carl Cozier.

Larrabee doesn’t fit the definition of a neighborhood school — with students from a 1-mile radius — because it pulls students from all the way down Chuckanut.

We should retask Larrabee, and make it a pre-Kindergarten program. We could get Title 1 funds for pre-K, and it would be the biggest bang for the buck. Or, turn it into a K-8 program for kids who don’t fit into the regular program.

Larrabee is at risk.

Jones: I really disagree. The southside’s demographic issue is Wade King. Lowell parents need to get with Larrabee parents. This is a big issue. Larrabee graduates great kids every year. I will fight to keep Larrabee open. Pre-k is supposed to be integrated at all the schools.

Smith: We don’t have the money. It’s a $100 million budget and we have to choose wisely. I’d love to keep small schools open, but we can’t afford it. I’d love to take a vacation to Europe every year, but I can’t afford that either.

Closing statements:
Jones: Let’s not close schools to balance the budget. Don’t balance the budget on the backs of kids. I support broad based cuts across the district, and I oppose repurposing Larrabee.

Smith: If we want broad based cuts, it’s going to be in teachers and bigger classrooms.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Seattle to reverse course, return to neighborhood schools

Here's an interesting development in Seattle, that we should pay close attention to here in Bellingham. Read
Proposed school boundaries would return Seattle to a neighborhood-based system in the Oct. 6 Seattle Times.

Seattle tried turning elementary schools into specialty magnet schools, encouraging families to send their kids far from home, and are now having to reverse directions. They are rediscovering the value of neighborhood based schools.

Let's not continue down the same path -- let's reverse course in Bellingham now, and decide NOT to create these specialty magnet schools, and instead provide high quality education for every neighborhood school. We can avoid the mistakes and expenses if we take action now.

Attend tonight's (Oct. 7) school board candidate forum, at 7:30 p.m. at the Fairhaven Park Pavillion, hosted by South Hill Neighborhood Association and Fairhaven Neighbors.

Attend Thursday's (Oct. 8) 7:30 p.m. Bellingham School Board meeting, and remind them we don't want to be making the same mistakes Seattle made.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Lowell plan, superintendent search on School Board's Oct. 8 agenda!

The Bellingham School District posted the Oct. 8 board meeting agenda and attachments today. Included under action items:
Management Action Plan for Lowell Elementary School,
prepared by acting superintendent Sherrie Brown, is a preliminary draft for reopening Lowell Elementary School. The plan includes five objective areas: Budget, Enrollment Projections, Staffing, Communications and Logistics.
It includes moving items from storage, into the school, in December!

While this is exciting, it is also important to know that the process includes "evaluating" the impact of reopening Lowell on Happy Valley and Larrabee elementary schools.

Let's make sure this evaluation really is for staffing purposes, and not another attempt by the school district to pit school communities against one another. We need to continue to support all of our elementary schools as neighborhood schools.

The draft plan also continues to use the term "small schools" -- which has been code for "unnecessary." These southside schools are not small. Lowell had more than 300 students, and Happy Valley is supposed to have about 280 students when it is not hosting a second student body. And Larrabee has more than 200 students.

Also on the agenda under action items: "The Board of Directors of Bellingham School District #501 will take action to initiate a search for a new superintendent that includes a process for input from community, staff and students."

We hope this process will allow for new school board members to participate, since they'll be the ones working with the new superintendent.

Please make an effort to be at the school board meeting this Thursday,
7:30 p.m., 1306 Dupont St. Big decisions are being made, and it is very important that the school board, the new acting superintendent Sherrie Brown, and the school board candidates who have been regularly attending these meetings understand how much we value and support our neighborhood schools.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Candidates interviewed in Cascadia Weekly

Cascadia Weekly's Tim Johnson did a great job interviewing the candidates running for two open Bellingham School Board seats. Read the article in the Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009 edition here:

Challenges face Bellingham schools, candidates say

Forums coming up
Several forums are coming up for the candidates to speak and answer questions. This is what we have confirmed so far:

* South Hill Neighborhood Association and the Fairhaven Neighbors Association will have its event at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7, at the Fairhaven Park Pavillion. Candidates or their representatives will make a short statement, and then it will be opened up for questions from the audience.

* League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County is partnering with American Association of University Women to put together a joint forum on ballot issues that will cover I-1033 and Ref. 71, as well as the Whatcom Library Levy, and the Bellingham School Board Candidates, 9:45 a.m. to noon Oct. 17, at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center, 315 Halleck St.

Friday, September 25, 2009

District to plan Lowell's reopening

The Bellingham School Board unanimously passed a motion Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009, to direct Acting Superintendent Sherrie Brown to bring a "management action plan for the reopening of Lowell" to the next board meeting, Oct. 8, 2009.

The district sent out an e-blast immediately following the meeting, with more details. Read it here:

Enrollment and facilities update September 2009

This is great news, and the slide show of the work being done at Lowell shows the school will be remarkable when it does reopen.

Also at Thursday night's meeting, members of SEIU Local 925, the union representing custodians, food service and maintenance employees of the district, spoke during the public comment period, and submitted a letter to the district, requesting reinstatement of staff who had been cut during the budget process. They say they lost jobs, hours, reduced substitute support and agreed to no pay raise till 2011, but that the district is giving previously unbudgeted wage increases to other employees at the same time.

Their point: clean, healthy schools should be a priority, and they're asking for positions to be reinstated. Hopefully, the new administration will consider their request.