Monday, August 24, 2009

Planning Commission OKs facilities plan

While the city Planning Commission voted Thursday night to recommend the city adopt the school district's new capital facilities plan, it did so with a lot of good discussion.

The Aug. 20 meeting will air on BTV 10 Tuesday, August 25, 2009, at 8 a.m.

Good questions and statements were voiced, such as: "Why isn't a reopening date for Lowell School in the six-year plan" and "Why isn't the school district using the state's projected enrollment for planning (Meridian school district is using the state's numbers), since it seems to be accurate for Bellingham?" and "It seems that portions of the district's capital facilities plan are working against the city's coimprehensive plan."

The school district sent a consultant as its representative at the meeting: She said she strongly urged the district to put an opening date for Lowell in the plan, but district administrators didn't want to, and said they'd revisit Lowell's future in the spring.

The commission went down a list of criteria to decide if it should recommend the city accept this plan; many of the criteria were vague, stating that things had chnaged so a new plan was needed. The commission agreed that things had changed, while also voicing that they didn't necessarily agree with HOW they had changed, and stated that it was really up to the school board to run its district.

The problem with this is, the district isn't adhering to the goals and values of the city that it is in, and this is one of the very few ways the city can actually make an impact, and require the school district to do something: set a reopen date for Lowell, maintain and operate its existing schools, and locate schools within neighborhoods.

The commission recommended that the school district work closely with city leaders to make sure these things happen.

Now, we need to contact City Council members, and let them know we don't want them to accept this capital facilities plan, and we do need their help in keeping our neighborhood schools open.

Here is the text of the Neighborhood School Coalition's statement to the planning commission, submitted by Melissa Schapiro:

The Planning Commission probably doesn’t hear too many protests of school districts’ capital facilities plans. Normally, it’s just updating some numbers, to make sure developers are providing support for the public facilities their buyers will require. However, this Bellingham School District capital facilities plan, for 2009-2015, and the accompanying proposed amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, do call for protest. The plan is a continuation of actions the current School Board and district administration have set in motion during the past year, which are in opposition to the city’s stated goals and values.

The school district, as part of its budget cutting process, is keeping a newly renovated elementary school – with a capacity for more than 300 students – closed this year, saying it doesn’t have money to operate Lowell Elementary. The district is choosing to keep the students in seven portables at another school. Voters were promised those portables would disappear this school year, with the opening of the new Wade King Elementary. At the same time, the district is moving forward with building another new elementary school on the northern limits of the district’s boundary, on Aldrich Road, saying it needs to get kids out of portable classrooms. Enrollment has been flat the past six years. In order to fill this additional school and to pay for its operating expenses, the district will have to shut another school.

The district’s actions are shutting schools in existing neighborhoods – where families choose to live, where children can walk or bike to school, where parents are more involved because of proximity and the community that these neighborhood schools build. These actions are contrary to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which values maintaining these neighborhood schools as part of the glue that holds the community together.

Building new, as yet unneeded schools in unpopulated areas, and closing these established schools, creates sprawl, traffic and pollution, and very quickly pulls apart residents’ relationships to one another.

The capital facilities plan, and the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendments before you tonight, present information that is overly optimistic about the future:

• It predicts a 14 percent increase in enrollment in the next six years. During the last six years, a time of economic prosperity and a building boom, enrollment remained flat. We all know that with developers going bankrupt, properties being foreclosed and jobs disappearing, people are moving out of the community.

• It includes Lowell Elementary in its stated student capacity, without including a reopen date. The district has been ambiguous about stating this: The school’s reopening has been “delayed,” possibly for one year; the superintendent stated there is no promise it will reopen next year.

• It shows a drop in capacity at the middle school level, when the new Shuksan Middle School opens this fall. Is the new school smaller than the old one?

• It shows a “service standard” of 22.5 students per classroom for grades K through 5. Not one class at Happy Valley Elementary had so few students last year. How can capacity be based on this number, when most of these classes had 26 to 30 students?

The Mayor and City Council have made it clear, in a resolution formally passed in May, that the city supports reopening Lowell this school year, and protecting two other elementary schools the district has on its list to be studied for possible future closure: Larrabee and Columbia. The school district responded with its own resolution, telling the city that if it valued these schools, the city should pay to operate them because the school district didn’t have the money to do so.

The school district has made it clear that it does not value these neighborhood schools, and that it is unconcerned about the impact it has on the community when it closes these schools, and builds new schools in remote areas that require busing.

These proposed amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan are the city’s opportunity to require the school district to conform to the values of the city it is in. Require the school district to maintain and operate these neighborhood schools. Require the district to show responsibility for what it already has, before it can move forward with building unneeded new schools that it can’t fund. Require the school district to be consistent: either it is keeping its reserve fund at 4.4 percent this year — well above its policy of 3 percent minimum — because it expects more bad years to come, or it is expecting boom times that require more schools.

Bellingham is a wonderful place to live, because of its many distinct, strong neighborhoods, with schools at their centers. Let’s not look back, six years from now, and wish we still had these schools. You can do something right now.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Democrats to endorse School Board candidates

The Whatcom Democrats will meet this Thursday, Aug. 20, and are expected to endorse candidates for the two open positions on the Bellingham School Board.

This is another great opportunity for your voice to be heard: attend the meeting, and support the candidates who support high quality education, small town values, and neighborhood schools.

7 p.m. at Norway Hall, 1419 N. Forest St., Bellingham

And then, stay tuned for School Board candidate debates this fall.

Monday, August 17, 2009

City has a say on Capital Facilities Plan

It's been a hot, busy summer, but now it's time to start thinking about school again. While the Bellingham School Board approved its Capital Facilities Plan back in July, it's just coming before the city's Planning Commission this Thursday night, 7 p.m. August 20, at city council chambers, 210 Lottie St.

On the agenda: "Consideration of an amendment to the Capital Facilities Chapter of the Bellingham Comprehensive Plan to adopt by reference a new six-year capital facilities plan for the Bellingham School District."
It then has to go to the City Council.

The planning commission includes time for public comment at its meetings. This is a great opportunity for us to let the city know how they can help protect neighborhood schools.

As it is, the Capital Facilities plan the district is presenting doesn't include a reopen date for Lowell Elementary, it includes a provision to buy MORE PORTABLES, to continue building a new school in the middle of farmland, and to plan for another new school in the next six years, all while the district says it doesn't have money to operate the schools it has now, and enrollment is flat.
Click here to read what the school district wants the Planning Commission to approve and to read the district's 2009-2015 Capital Facilities Plan:
Proposed amendments to city's Comprehensive Plan

The district needs the city to incorporate the capital facilities plan into its Comprehensive Plan, in order to collect impact fees from developers.
The city can pressure the district regarding this plan. Let them know you want them to! Come to the meeting Thursday night. If you can't make it, submit a written comment to the city through: Heather Aven, 360-778-8300, or e-mail

Here's the link to the report being presented to the Planning Commission:
Bellingham School District request re: Capital Facilities update

This hasn't been well publicized, and so far the city has received no comments. Let's change that!