Thursday, April 17, 2014

What it looks like to respect the taxpayers and put students first....

I'm sure the Bellingham School District has it's challenges and critics.  I don't think there's a school district in the country that doesn't.  However, in looking around at other local bond issues the other night to see what had been done and what was being done, I stumbled across a bond I could have gotten behind.

Last November (stay tuned, I'll comment on that in a moment, or one of our new school board directors will, rather), Bellingham ran a $160 million bond that passed with 66% approval.  The bond includes an ambitious list of projects not unlike our own.  They will rebuild two schools (I went to both) that are currently 48 and 52 years old.  By the time the 48 year old high school opens on the same property the current one is, that school will be 52 years old.  They apparently don't possess the arbitrary 40 year replacement cycle. They replace based on need.

They will update, modernize and repair roofs and HVAC systems in several other schools not unlike our own list of projects.

There is no technology on the bond because they ran it in a separated tech and operations levy in the past.

They asked for $2 million to upgrade the bus barn - something Everett did without asking the voters and something they use to justify the way they built the administration building.

They will build a small, new alternative high school that has been housed in portables for nearly 20 years.

They will upgrade the fields at all three Bellingham high schools

And, they will upgrade the facilities at their version of the Lively Property.

But, here's the kicker.  They ASKED voters for $17 million to update and do safety upgrades to their 106 year old district office building (their version of the Longfellow building).  They aren't asking for a new building - just for upgrades to it.  Is $17 million a lot of money?  Yes, it is.  However, the statements made in this video warm my heart.  In a nutshell, they say they acknowledge that no one really wants to pay for this BUT, they also flat out say that "we don't need to build a luxurious, large new building."  Is that a shout out to Everett?  Check out the video below.  

Now for the timing of their bond.  They ran it last November.  Yes, NOVEMBER!  That saved the district a LOT of money by running it alongside a regular election.  But, by running it during a regular election, they were obligated to allow both a for AND against statement in the local voter's guide. The thought of that would cause our administration to curl into the fetal position in their new offices.  

In fact, at the March 4 school board meeting where the timing of re-running the bond was discussed, new Board Member, Caroline Mason, had reservations about waiting until November because voters might get confused about what they're voting on. Please... we are just as smart a Bellingham voters.  I think we could have figured it out. The translation of the statement is that in November, there would be too many voters who were there for other things and voted on the bond as an afterthought vs. voters in February and April who are there just for the bond.  

Now, let's talk briefly about the language of the bond itself.  It's BINDING! They don't give themselves a whole lot of closed-door wiggle room to do anything with extra money beyond doing MORE improvements to school facilities:

Section 2. Capital Improvements. The District shall make the following capital improvements (the “Improvements”): 


The cost of all necessary planning, architectural, engineering, and other consulting services, inspection and testing, administrative and relocation expenses, on and off-site utilities, related improvements and other costs incurred in connection with the making of the foregoing capital improvements shall be deemed a part of the costs of the Improvements. Such improvements shall include all necessary furniture, equipment and appurtenances.

If available funds are sufficient from the proceeds of Bonds authorized for the above purposes, the District may use such funds to acquire sites for facilities of the District or to pay the principal of or interest on the Bonds, In the alternative, if available funds are sufficient from the proceeds of Bonds authorized for the above purposes and/or state and local circumstances require, the District may use such funds to acquire, construct, equip, modernize and make other capital improvements to the facilities of the District, all as the Board of Directors may determine, after holding a public hearing thereon pursuant to RCW 28A.530.020. 


It is anticipated that the District may receive funds from the State of Washington pursuant to Chapter 28A.525 RCW. To the extent that such state funds are not received timely and used to pay costs of the Improvements, the District intends to apply such state funds to construct and equip a new warehouse for District use (they put a name on what they may do with those funds instead of hiding them) and/or future school facility construction projects, including planning and design of such District facilities. Such state funds may also be applied to pay the principal of or interest on the bonds provided for herein or to make other capital improvements to the facilities of the District as the Board may determine after holding a public hearing thereon pursuant to RCW 28A.530.020. 

That's cRaZy talk right there.  Doesn't Bellingham know "The Everett Way"? They are supposed to be vague and deceptive about bond dollars so as to keep all their options open.  I guess Dr. Cohn needs to make a trip up there to sit down with their Superintendent and "school" him on not making the other districts look bad.  

I'm sure that while there were plenty who didn't want this bond to pass in Bellingham, I have a different perspective living in a district that goes out of it's way to keep the public out of their hair.  Maybe if I lived in Bellingham, I might have been on the "no" side - I haven't researched if this raised taxes or not.  But, after living here, I certainly have a much lower bar to compare bonds to in any city I might live.  I just need to ask myself, "Is this better than Everett?"   I bet that 9 times out of 10, the answer will be, "Yes".  

A shout out to my home town for respecting voters and putting students first in word AND action.