Friday, June 26, 2009

We have lots of work to do

The board members made their opinions clear last night: Closing a school is an OK option for them. This makes it all the more important that we stay involved. We have a lot of work ahead of us:

* The district's capital facilities plan will be released this summer.
* Expect the capacity study to re-emerge this summer; be ready to apply to be on the committee.
* We will pursue an inquiry into the district's legal obligations regarding spending bond money (and then keeping the building closed), and keeping children in portables when they have regular classrooms available.
* We will be contacting the city parks department about its agreement with the school district, regarding public access to school properties (we should have access to the Lowell building), and work to get neighborhood associations meeting at their neighborhood schools again.
* The coalition also will be working to support all of Bellingham's PTAs, to work together, cut costs, and help fund raise.

Want to help? Contact us at

Board refuses to change budget

The School Board refused to make any changes to its 2009-10 budget Thursday night. Several audience members spoke, then board members made statements that we weren't allowed to question, and they moved ahead with their prepared resolution and passed the budget unanimously.

They say we'll thank them next year, because the district will have a fat savings account. And they need the fat savings account because we might have another economic disaster next year that we WOULD use the savings account for. They focused a lot on, what if the state trims another $4.2 million from our district's revenue? What if we don't get another federal stimulus package (followed by Assistant Superintendent Ron Cowan's statement that "The stimulus doesn't really help us. It's so targeted to special ed, remediation and I-728")

The truth is, if we go along with their doomsday planning for another economic disaster (we're actually pulling OUT of this recession, not entering another one ... ) the difference of $450,000 being in the savings account won't make any difference, the whole account would be wiped out.

Board member Ken Gass said, "What if a roof blows off? We can't run a school district on fumes." If school board members allowed a dialogue, we could have pointed out that that would be paid with capital funds, which the district has plenty of, not from the savings account.

Board members insist they support neighborhood schools, but never addressed why Lowell's closure was the first action taken to trim the budget. They never addressed why they think it's acceptable to bus children past their empty school, and stuff them into substandard portables somewhere else.

They think spending money on great teachers is the best way to improve kids' education; but the best teacher can't reach kids who are overcrowded and distracted in substandard conditions, in metal boxes in the parking lot of the school grounds.

KGMI was there. Read their story, and listen to their audio at:
School board approves budget

The Bellingham Herald was NOT at the meeting. The Herald covered a community discussion in Ferndale: The Ferndale School Board has DISCUSSIONS with its community, and RESPONDS to them. Remember, they said NO to closing a school to save money, and they delayed adopting their budget for a month in order to TALK MORE with the community. Read the story at:
Full-time kindergarten no longer an option for Ferndale

Thank you to everyone who spoke Thursday night. One speaker, a Bellingham firefighter/paramedic and a single mom, pointed out how substandard those portables really are: she said she has inspected them, and they are not suitable for children to spend their days in. Another woman spoke, making the point that it was her wedding anniversary, but the loss of her neighborhood school was so important, that she had to be there to speak out.

Two statements were written. Read them at:
Neighborhood Schools Coalition statement
Emily Weiner's statement

And as one speaker noted: This isn't over. We will continue to fight to keep our schools open. Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Speak up at School Board tonight

June 25, 7:30 p.m., 1306 Dupont St. Roeder Administration Building.

Tonight is the big Bellingham School Board meeting, when public comment will be allowed on the draft budget. The board is scheduled to vote on this budget tonight.

Key points: they've retained 500 of 504.5 basic education teaching positions; they're spending $1 million less than than what they're bringing in, and pumping money into the reserve fund, above the amount needed.

They can choose at any time to use a portion of this reserve fund to keep their schools open, and still maintain a VERY healthy balance, more than enough for coming years. They've dipped into this fund regularly over the years, why are they refusing to use a rainy day fund to help during the budget crisis it was designed for?

Please attend tonight ... it's important that the school board knows that we still care, we're not going away, and that they need to keep their schools open.

Sign up to speak.

Thank you!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Agenda attachments online

The school district posted attachments to its June 25 agenda online. Take a look at, and click on School Board meeting minutes and agendas, public site, and pick the June 25 meeting.

A resolution to pass the budget is on there.
The public comment period preceding the budget resolution is the only time we can comment on it. Let's make this time count! Let them know Bellingham wants to keep its schools open.
7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 25. 1306 Dupont St. Roeder Administration Building.

Herald prints guest column on school budget

We had a guest column in The Bellingham Herald today. Check it out:

School district has funds to reopen Lowell school

I also linked to it on the side panel under media links)

Monday, June 22, 2009

School board June 25 agenda

Here's the agenda for the June 25 School Board meeting. As usual, we have to wait till the day before for the attachments to the agenda to be posted online: the contracts and details of what will be discussed .... stay tuned.

06/25/2009 Regular Meeting 7:30 p.m.


1.01 Meeting Date and Location

1.02 Executive Session

1.03 Roll Call

2.01 Approval of Minutes of June 11, 2009 Regular Meeting

2.02 Approval of Minutes of June 17, 2009 Study Session

2.03 Approval of Investments

2.04 Personal Services Contracts

2.05 Agreement for Services – Max Higbee Center

2.06 Memorandum of Agreement – Western Washington University

2.07 Summary of Donations

2.08 Out of State Travel – Bellingham High School Staff

2.09 Student Trip – Bellingham High School Basketball Team

2.10 Student Trip – Bellingham High School Cross Country Team

2.11 Student Trip – Bellingham High School Dance Team

2.12 Student Trip – Bellingham High School Dance Team

2.13 Student Trip – Bellingham High School Girl's Basketball Team

2.14 Student Trip – Bellingham High School Wrestling Team

3.01 School Board Directors' Reports

3.02 Legislative Report

3.03 Superintendent's Announcements and Report

3.04 Shining Stars Recognition

3.05 Audience Comments

5.01 Resolution 10–09, Resolution of Fixing and Adopting the 2009–2010 Budget

5.02 State and Federal I-Grant Applications

5.03 Policy 6890, State Environmental Policy Act Compliance – Second Reading

5.04 Policy 3200, Student Rights & Responsibilities – First Reading

5.05 Policy/Procedure 4200, Safe and Orderly Learning Environment – First Reading

5.06 Personnel Recommendations

6.01 Adjournment

Some interesting comments online

The Bellingham Herald published a story today about the Bellingham School District's draft budget, and also posted some information on the School Days blog regarding the issue. Readers have been commenting ... take a look, and add your comments to the fray ....

Bellingham Schools propose $100 million budget; some layoffs may be avoided

And please mark your calendars for Thursday night, June 25, at 7:30 p.m., to be at the Roeder Administration building, 1306 Dupont St.

This is your only opportunity to tell the School Board what you think about this draft budget, and that they should keep their schools open!

Draft budget online

The school district posted an update on its budget process sometime over the weekend; here's the link:

Budget update June 19

The draft budget is also finally available online. The link is also on the blog's side panel under school district documents,

Draft budget

The district continues to say it needs to keep reserves high because who knows what will happen next year. And officials insist on closing an elementary school.

Again, if they could dip into reserves every other year to pay for non-essential programs, why can't the district use reserves this year to keep its schools open? Reserves would still be higher than needed, at 4 percent, instead of 4.4 percent.

Their decision equates to a person who's home is being foreclosed on, making sure to keep a high balance in their savings account because they might need it next year.

The district needs to use the savings account now. Be responsible: Keep your schools open.

And if you insist on closing a school, please inform the public how you plan to stuff two student bodies into one school that is meant to house only 280 students!

Friday, June 19, 2009

School board work session

Wednesday night, the school board had a work session to discuss the draft 2009-10 draft budget with district officials. The draft is available at the Roeder Administration building, 1306 Dupont St. It's free.

I shared some details of the budget in an earlier post, but want to reiterate a few points:

• Revenue is down $580,000, or 0.6 percent, from 2008-09, not the projected $3 million to $5 million projected.

• It's a $100 million budget, with spending set at $1 million below revenue.

• The district has added to its “rainy day” fund, called the unreserved fund, so it is 4.4 percent of the overall budget. District policy calls for a reserve fund worth between 3 percent and 5 percent of the budget.

• The district is hiring 500 full-time equivalent basic education teachers, cutting only 4.5 FTE positions.

• The district went ahead with $2.5 million in spending cuts.

• In previous years, the district has used the rainy day fund (see media links at right)for discretionary items; you would think that keeping its schools open and running would be worth using the rainy day fund, especially when the fund would remain at a very healthy level.

Why is the school district and board keeping a school closed when it doesn't have to? It's hands are NOT tied --- rainy day funds are for days like this.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Archived news articles show school district pattern

I've added some media links, on the blog's side panel, to archived newspaper articles, which show that the Bellingham School District routinely uses money from its rainy day fund to shore up holes in its budget ... if they can do this during good economic times, why are they refusing to use any of their rainy day funds during our economic crisis?

They would not be bankrupting the district if they kept their schools open. Their fund would still be in the mid-range of what the district requires of itself .... 3 percent to 5 percent of its total $100 million budget.

(it's through the Bellingham Public Library web site, so if you have a library card, you can search the archives yourself!)

Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission shows support

Wednesday, June 17, I spoke to the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission on behalf of Neighborhood Schools Coalition. The commission has representatives from all of Bellingham's neighborhood associations.

Many of the attendees were unaware that in addition to Lowell, Larrabee and Columbia remain on the chopping block. The meeting was very positive, and the group unanimously voiced its support for the school district to fund and operate all of its existing neighborhood schools.

These representatives will take this information back to their neighborhood associations, so all of the constituents in Bellingham School District can be aware and get involved.

Thank you Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission for your time and support!

Comment on Bellingham's legacies

The city of Bellingham is developing a "Draft Legacies" document. According to the city's web site:

"The Bellingham City Council is seeking feedback from residents on long-term goals and ways to meet those goals, in the first step of a multi-year project to improve strategic planning and performance reporting to the community.
City Council members recently established a draft set of twenty- to fifty-year goals, or "legacy statements," that will be supported by shorter term, six- to twenty-year "strategic commitments." Public comments on the draft will be accepted through June 24."
Neighborhood schools fit perfectly into these goals -- read more about the effort and find a link to the draft document at City Council seeks feedback about long-term goals

I encourage you all to comment on this document, by emailing the mayor at, and ask the city to include the words "existing neighborhood schools" in the document. The city council has already shown its support for neighborhood schools; this is just one more way they can emphasize how important these schools are!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How other districts handle cuts

A question that keeps coming up is, how are other school districts handling these tough economic times?

We know that the Ferndale School District received a suggestion to close its elementary school on Lummi Island to save money, but their superintendent took that possibility off the list of budget cuts.

Here's a link to the School Days blog on The Bellingham Herald, where once again the Ferndale School Board has decided to delay passing its budget, to allow for more time to make sure they are funding programs appropriately.

So far, Bellingham School District is the only one in Whatcom County closing a school to save money in 2009-10.

School Board work session tonight

Tonight (June 17) is the school board study session to discuss the draft budget for 2009-10. The session will NOT include a public comment time, though the public is allowed to attend.

I strongly encourage the public to attend and listen carefully to what is presented, and the question-answer dialogue between staff and board members.

The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the Board Room at the Roeder Administration Building, 1306 Dupont Street.

Monday, June 15, 2009

District budget response

I've just heard back from Ron Cowan, assistant superintendent, regarding my budget questions. He reiterated much of the district's stance:

* The federal stimulus money could only be spent on three areas as outlined in the budget, and that without that money, the district would have been short nearly $5 million.

* Nearly every item on the budget cut list was made that could be made, reducing spending by $2.5 million.

* When the budget cut list was presented to the board, a letter from the superintendent accompanied it, stating that the order of items on the list could change. That is in an older version of the budget cut list, here's the link:

Adopted Budget Savings Plan

I asked him why items were put on the list and approved by the board, to be taken off because they couldn't be used to trim costs this year. His answer was that they were good ideas that would be considered in the future, and that keeping them on the list acknowledged that.

He felt the process used was a good one; I disagree. I don't think you can make very good decisions about what to cut out of a budget, when mixed in are items that have no relevance to this year. Those are the items that should be on the future consideration list.

I also believe that cutting costs at each individual school, with families and schools working together, would have been a better method, rather than pitting schools and programs against one another for the same dollar.

He also clarified the discrepency regarding number of students: The larger number, 10,400, refers to a head count ... some students don't attend full time, so the full-time equivalent number of students is in the 9,800 range.

It'll be interesting to hear what the school board has to say when they review the budget Wednesday night.

I also heard back from Nancy Merry at the district office, who confirmed the following meetings:

June 17 at 7 p.m. is the Board Study Session on the budget.

June 25 is the Board regular meeting. Officially, the meeting will start at 6:30 p.m. and will go immediately into executive session without any other business occurring. The regular Board meeting follows at 7:30 p.m.

July 16 at 11:30 a.m. the Board will meet in retreat followed by the regular Board meeting at 5:30 p.m.

2009-10 draft budget details

I asked the district office to clarify some issues with the draft budget, both on Friday and today, and have yet to get a response.

So, here are some comments based on my review. If I do get any additional info, I will let you all know.

The expected revenue, which includes all income, to the general fund, is set at $101,199,056. Expected expenditures, which includes all spending, from the general fund, is set at $100,220,146. This adds an extra $1 million to the ending balance, which is $6,139,699.

When the budget cut list was passed by the School Board, the district was telling us to expect a shortfall of $2 million up to $5 million in revenue. The actual revenue shortfall, as compared to the 2008-09 budget, is $586,372, or a shortfall of 0.6 percent.

So, you'd think the district would go down that budget cut list, until they hit the $586,000 mark, and make those cuts -- which is what the school board approved.

But the district hasn't done that. Check the list (link at right). Cuts have been made all the way down the list, and other cuts have been crossed out as "not doable" at this time, starting at item No. 2.

The district states that more than $4.2 million in federal stimulus funding was received, and can't be used as general purpose revenue. But the district figures put this money in the general fund.

Another item I questioned: the summary page of the budget states the district has 10,400 students at its elementary, middle, and high schools. However, the next page shows enrollment history back to 2000-01, with the numbers ranging from 9,651 to a budgeted 9,969 for next year. Why the discrepancy? In March this year, the district said it had only 9,800 students, 1,000 below what had been projected in the district's capital facilities plan for 2004-2009.
How many students are they actually budgeting for?

It's more important than ever to attend Wednesday night's School Board meeting (7 p.m.), when the board will discuss this draft budget. Public comment isn't allowed, but it's the only time you'll get to hear what board members are thinking before they vote on the budget June 25.

You can call and write board members about your concerns and questions; there will be public comment time on June 25, but if we hope for any changes to be made, it would have to be done before the night they vote on it!

I'm also double-checking the meeting dates and times; the June 11 meeting started at 6:30 p.m., not the publicized 7:30 p.m. that was listed online on the agenda. And though the district office emailed me that the board would meet June 17, it isn't listed on the board's calendar online.

We'll get this straightened out!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Budget preview

I have a copy of the preliminary 2009-10 school district budget report, and am combing through the numbers. I have asked for some clarifications from the district, and will post details as soon as I get them.

Copies of the draft budget are available for free at the school district office. On June 17, the school board will meet and discuss the details; the public can attend, but can't speak. I encourage everyone to attend June 17 to hear what's going on, then go the next week, on June 25, for the public hearing and school board vote.

Stay tuned!

Capacity study not presented

FYI: It looks like the capacity study wsn't on the June 11 agenda on purpose! The subject didn't come up at all at last night's school board meeting.

Maybe the school district is holding off requesting it until the new capital facilities plan is released in July.

I have requested information on this from the district, and will keep you all updated!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Draft Budget to be ready June 15

This just in from Nancy Merry, at the Superintendent's Office:
Our business office is currently working on the draft budget and will have draft copies available prior to the School Board’s budget work study session at 7 p.m. June 17 in the Board Room. Print copies of the draft budget should be available at the district office on Monday, June 15.

The study session is an opportunity for the Board to review and discuss the draft budget. It is open to the public for observation only. The final budget will go to the School Board at the regular meeting at 7:30 p.m. June 25. As always, there is opportunity for public comment at the Board meeting. The final budget will be posted online.

What is the final 2009-10 budget?

The school district is required to make its final budget available to the public, before it is presented at a public hearing and voted on by the school board.

This is supposed to happen by July 1 each year.

I requested this information from the superintendent's office last week, and have yet to hear back from them!

The final proposed budget, with the actual cuts, has not been approved yet. The list the board voted on in March was a proposed list of budget cuts, meaning that the district was to go down the list and make the cuts until a set amount of money has been saved.

If you look at that proposed list (see links at right), the superintendent's office has crossed off many of those approved cuts.

We still don't know what the budget is for next year, how much money the district can spend, how much it needs to cut from last year's budget, how much money it is receiving from the state and from federal stimulus funds.

We don't know if the superintendent's office will, after all, follow through on that approved budget cut list, or not.

Call the superintendent's office - 676-6501 - and ask for the final proposed budget.

School board June 11 agenda update

The attachments were posted to the School Board's June 11 agenda today, and there's no mention of the "capacity" or "efficiency" study.

The superintendent has a time slot for a report, but no details are provided.

However, according to a member of the Parent Advisory Committee, at that committee's meeting on June 3 the superintendent said he would be revising his "Capacity Utilization Study" request and bringing that back to the school board on June 11, with a start date for the task force sometime in the fall (versus August). Applications for the task force will probably be due sometime this summer, but a date cannot be set until the school board approves the study.

Also, according to the school board minutes from the May 28 regular meeting, this is how they view the superintendent's report on the capacity study:

Capacity Study

Superintendent Kenneth Vedra addressed the Board about the need to name a task force to make a comparative, descriptive study of all K–12 schools in the district. The study would look at school/instructional site capacity, school/instructional site utilization, current and historical enrollment demographics, attendance areas and feeder patterns, future enrollment projections, site operational costs, and instructional and non-instructional space assignments.

The task force will make a written recommendation to the superintendent concerning capacity and use of existing instructional facilities and any recommendation related to future cost savings based on their study.

Dr. Vedra recommends the task force be comprised of forty voting members,including parents; students; patrons; certificated, classified, and itinerant staff; school administrators and central office representatives. In addition, four non-voting members will be part of the task force. He proposed a final written report would be made to the superintendent in
December 2009.

Director Rhode asked for clarification of the research model and who would provide the data. According to Dr. Vedra, there is state and national data available for the task force to review as well as district data on enrollment. Ron Cowan, assistant superitnendent of Business and Operations, indicated that every six years, the Capital Facility Plan is required by law to be updated. It was last done in 2004 so the Board will be asked to approve a new Capital Facility Plan in July for the next six years. This data will also be used for the Capacity Study.

The Board asked for clarification on the number of years the district is able to collect impact fees before they are required to use them. Mr. Cowan will verify this information.

Friday, June 5, 2009

School board candidates file

Four people have filed this week as candidates for the two open Bellingham School District positions being vacated by Melody Rhode and Steve Schoenfeld:

Rogan Jones
Steven H. Smith
Michael Jay
Scott Stockburger

Here's to good debates on important issues!

June 11 School Board agenda

The agenda for the June 11 Bellingham School Board was posted online today; there's not much detail on it, so we'll have to wait till the attachments are put online to see what's on the consent agenda, etc.
At the last school board meeting May 28, the superintendent had asked the school board to vote on the capacity study at the June 11 meeting, which starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Board Room at Roeder Administration Building, 1306 Dupont Street.
Here's the agenda:

1.01 Meeting Date and Location
1.02 Executive Session
1.03 Roll Call
2.01 Approval of Minutes of May 28, 2009 Regular Meeting
2.02 Approval of Investments
2.03 Approval of Expenditures and Payroll
2.04 Personal Services Contract
2.05 Agreement – Extended School Year
2.06 Call for Bids – Shuksan Middle School Classroom Audio Visual Intrastructure System
3.01 School Board Directors' Reports
3.02 Legislative Report
3.03 Superintendent's Announcements and Report
3.04 Shining Stars Recognition
3.05 Audience Comments
4.01 Healthy Youth Survey Report for 2008–2009
4.02 Title IX Compliance Report for 2008–09
5.01 Student Athletics and Activities Pay Schedule
5.02 Food Service Meal Prices 2009–10
5.03 Award of Bid - Shuksan Middle School Phase 2
5.04 Policy and Procedures 3442, Anaphylaxis Prevention – Second Reading
5.05 Policy 6890, State Enviornmental Policy Act Compliance – First Reading
5.06 Personnel Recommendations, preliminary
6.01 Adjournment

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Community support at forum

Thank you Citizens Forum for hosting last night's discussion on neighborhood schools. I didn't count heads, but it looked to be about 30 0r 40 people, from various parts of the community, geographically and demographically.
People had some very thought-provoking statements, and good ideas about neighborhood schools. The consensus appeared to be that neighborhood schools are important for the whole community, people are concerned about their future and wondering why the school district and school board are making some decisions.

Some key points:

* Looking at the utility of a building is not the same thing as assessing how we educate children. A school's efficiency is about how many children it graduates, not its utility costs.

* Once neighborhood schools are closed, that property can't be regained. As the population grows, these classrooms will be needed again, and current state laws and property values won't allow the school district to repurchase these neighborhood-central pieces of land. Once they're gone, they're gone forever.

* We can already see the impacts of removing a school from a neighborhood. York children used to walk to Carl Cozier Elementary, but about five or six years ago, were redistricted and bused across town to Lowell. The demographics of York have changed as a result, with fewer families choosing to buy homes there, and about half of the homes rented to college students. A real estate agent pointed out that questions about schools are in the top three asked when people are looking to buy a home, and even people without children choose homes in school-centric neighborhoods.

* The costs of putting up new school buildings on the edge of the city, or outside city limits, goes beyond the construction costs. The city has chosen not to annex the property that includes the new Wade King elementary because of associated costs including putting in a new fire station, building roads and sidewalks, etc. While the Aldrich Road school site has recently been annexed, it faces similar future funding problems, as it sits at the border of the Meridian School District, and is unlikely to capture as much growth. This is not good long-term planning. The city, county and school district need to work together on this.

* The Bellingham Comprehensive Plan includes language throughout the document that requires schools to be retained as a key part of neighborhoods and the community. This is required by the state's Growth Management Act. The school district should adhere to the requirements
of the city and state they're in.

* When neighborhood schools are shut down, people with wealth decide to send their kids to private schools, draining the public school system of students and monetary support. Historically, Bellingham's neighborhood schools have had the support and children from these wealthy families; this is already starting to change.

Citizens Forum schools presentation

Here is the presentation I gave at the Citizens Forum June 2:

My name is Melissa Schapiro, and I want to tell you about the Neighborhood Schools Coalition to support Bellingham’s existing neighborhood schools.

We are families who decided to build our lives in this community, because of its strong neighborhoods and schools. We are retired educators who have taught several generations of Bellingham citizens. We are parents who grew up attending Bellingham schools. We are long-time neighborhood activists who value schools’ roles as community centers.

We are also voters who approved a $67 million bond in 2006 to make sure that neighborhood schools would be saved. And we are dismayed that those same schools are the ones the school district is trying to shut down.

We're concerned that the Bellingham School District, and the Superintendent's Office are taking the district in a direction contrary to Bellingham citizen's stated values and goals for our city.

We are appealing to people from all corners of our community to get involved, to make sure the district provides support and operating funds for our existing neighborhood elementary schools and a broad-based education for all of our elementary age students.

Many things have happened over the last year. What happened to Lowell School is just the beginning of what will happen to this community if we allow the superintendent and school board to continue on this path.

Last year at this time, the community at Lowell was wrapping up another year, a special year, knowing they would be split apart while the building was being made safe. The principal, teachers, and parents had gone to extraordinary measures to explain the transition process. Kids weren’t just reassigned to a new school. Instead, through art projects, creative writing, and Monday morning gatherings they talked about change -- exploring what it meant to be somewhere else, how we would be guests at someone else’s school for one year, and that, when the building was strong and safe, they would return to Lowell.

In the fall, the budget advisory committee appointed by the Bellingham School District placed Lowell at the top of the list of budget cutting ideas – keep the school closed a second year, save $450,000. It was easy for everyone outside of Lowell to say, great idea, easy way to save money, it didn’t seem to affect them. And, by the way, stop complaining, because it’s only one more year, and it’s already closed.

Before the state and federal budgets were complete, before Bellingham School District had any idea how much it needed to cut from its budget, the school district announced Lowell would not reopen in fall 2009, regardless. Then, the superintendent offered Lowell parents another option. Raise $450,000 in five days, and Lowell will reopen. It turns out, it was a carrot that didn’t exist – the district can’t accept that kind of money without board approval, donations can’t be targeted to one school, or used for salaries. While the district didn't make that clear, it did announce that parents failed to raise the money.

The superintendent also said he would never close a school without first performing a study. And as promised, the superintendent last week requested the school board approve a “capacity” study of Bellingham’s schools – designed just like the budget advisory committee, with members hand-picked by the superintendent’s office, all data provided by the superintendent's office, and no professional guidance. This study is aimed at shutting down elementary schools, and funneling children to newly built 500-plus student schools on the outskirts of town -- busing required. The superintendent has publicly stated that there is no promise that Lowell will reopen, or that other schools won’t be closed, after this “one year” delay and “capacity” study.

This is Lowell’s story. But it’s the beginning of a bigger story about a change in Bellingham’s school district. It foreshadows more school closures to come.

It’s a change, because you, the Bellingham voters, said you want neighborhood schools. You value them so much that you overwhelmingly passed the 2006 bond to fix existing schools, and to build a new one – Wade King – to relieve overcrowding and get kids out of portables. By keeping Lowell closed and empty, the school district will keep students at Happy Valley in 7 portables, and at Larrabee in three portables – which the school district pointed out in its own pro-bond literature are substandard.

Lowell’s upgrade will be complete this month (June 2009); Columbia’s building upgrades are already complete, and Larrabee’s will be finished this summer. But these are the schools targeted for closure.

The school board has violated Bellingham voters’ trust. They said they would support these existing schools, they said new schools were being built to ease overcrowding, with target populations of around 250 students for existing elementaries, because our youngest children fare best in this size setting.

It’s a change, because the Bellingham Comprehensive Plan values schools in the heart of neighborhoods, where kids can walk or bike to school, and where the school serves as a community center. The Comp Plan includes schools as one of the basic elements each neighborhood should have, along with parks and small-scale retail -- to service and complement the homes of that community. Lowell, Larrabee and Columbia are perfect examples of successful, neighborhood schools, serving exactly the sort of development the city is encouraging in our community. Neighborhood schools are integral to our city’s stated growth plan.

It’s a change, because although the school district’s current facilities plan had expected to have 10,880 students by 2009, calling for building one new elementary school, enrollment is flat. The new school has been built – Wade King – but as of March 2009, only 9,831 full- time equivalent students were enrolled districtwide. The district has permanent capacity to house 10,240 students. We have more than enough room for our students without more schools.

But the superintendent and school board are pushing forward with building more new schools, on the edge of the city or outside city limits, with 500-student capacities. They’ll have to close neighborhood schools to provide operating funds and students for these news schools, which are being “branded” with specialty programs. If allowed, this will create a driving nightmare, with parents and kids competing to get into each school, then driving across town for pickups and drop-offs, with siblings at different schools. It will pull apart the neighborhoods Bellingham has been so careful to craft.

The school board is doing this, while publicly stating in a resolution directed at the Bellingham City Council, that it doesn’t have money to operate its existing schools.

Everyone knows these are tough economic times. We all are touched by people who have lost jobs, or homes, or been reassigned to lesser-paying positions. Every school district is making cuts.

But unlike Ferndale, which said “no” when asked to close Beach School on Lummi Island to save money, the Bellingham school board says, yes, it’s a great idea.

The school board has lost touch with what Bellingham voters want.
The superintendent never was in touch – he works part time, draws a full time salary, and flies back and forth to Colorado, where his wife and kids live. Contrary to the district’s announcement on hiring him, he didn’t move here with his family. He didn’t enroll his children in Bellingham schools. He isn’t invested in this community. Rather, he’s invested in the International Baccalaureate program, whose board he serves on, and which he brought to Wade King Elementary and is bringing to Northern Heights and Carl Cozier elementaries, costing our school district tens of thousands of dollars.

The School Board continues to spend money on the IB program, and will send 21 people to IB training conferences this summer in Georgia, Colorado and California.

The school board is spending $132,000 on a controversial new math curriculum (TERC) that is not supported by the state superintendent of public instruction or the state board of education.

How can the Bellingham School Board responsibly authorize continued spending on specialty programs and building new schools, when they say they don’t have money to operate existing schools?

The issue of capital budgets vs. operating budgets is a smoke screen: if you don’t have the money to operate, why build a school just because you can? This is fiscally irresponsible. This is our money.

Don’t let them do this. The school board needs to hold off on specialty programs and building new schools, and focus on what it’s supposed to be doing: teaching kids in appropriate classrooms at neighborhood schools.

This is Bellingham. Let’s keep it that way.