Many WA voters will decide fate of old schools in February election
Zachary Wulfman’s 7th grade English class tackled metaphors on Thursday.
"The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas," Wulfman read dramatically from the projector screen.
Next door, Jennifer Haugen's English class — reading support for 7th and 8th graders, in a school where 60 languages are spoken — was covering inferences versus implications, but they could hear the metaphor class through the walls.
"I was dying of laughter," Wolfman continued in the next room as Haugen went over her class' assignment.
College Place Middle School, part of the Edmonds School District, was built in 1970 in an era of ‘open classrooms’ with thin foldable walls.
Outside, the downspouts have rotted, dumping water sometimes. The auditorium doubles as the cafeteria and is too small for all 500 students; half the school goes for lunch one period early.
In the aged gym with cramped locker rooms and no ADA-accessible bathrooms, the lights on the scoreboard are a special type made in 1970. When they go out, staff have to go to other schools and take their old bulbs, principal Andrea Collins said.
But these thin walls might be the worst for learning. Algebra teacher Susan Roberson said even when her students are focused, "all of a sudden we hear noise, and then they start getting distracted."
Special elections around the state take place on Tuesday, Feb. 13. In more than 40 school districts around Washington, according to data from the Secretary of State's office, voters will decide whether to pass bonds or levies to renovate or rebuild school buildings.
In Edmonds School District, if voters say yes on Tuesday, a measure on the ballot would raise almost $600 million dollars in bond funds. The funds would replace the College Place Middle School campus and two elementary schools, add a middle school, and complete improvements elsewhere.
Opponents have said the property taxes levied to pay for the bonds are too much for working-class taxpayers in this area north of Seattle. Because of state law, the measure needs a 60% margin to pass. A similar measure in 2020 fell 4% short of that.
It's a common story in a racially diverse and low-income Washington school like this one, where less than half the students are white and 60% are on a free or reduced lunch program.
A recent analysis found the average school building in Washington was built or last majorly renovated more than 30 years ago, and school districts with larger populations of low income students are more likely to occupy older buildings in poorer conditions.
David Knight, an associate professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington, was on the thesis committee for that analysis.
"When you look across the state, there's buildings that are not fully up to code in terms of earthquake protection," Knight said. "There's also districts that need technology improvements. And so right now, there's really very, very limited state support for capital improvements."
The buildings at College Place Middle School rank below the average in the state by that analysis, though not the worst.
In Wahkiakum School District in Southwest Washington, the buildings are in such poor condition that the district sued the state, arguing it was responsible for the decaying buildings. A judge ruled against the school district last year, finding that the school district was at least partially responsible for funding maintenance and improvements.
Voters there haven't approved a bond in more than two decades.
Principal Andrea Collins was still new at College Place Middle School the last time a bond to rebuild it failed. In the four years since, she and the staff have tried to make do with the facilities, such as giving teachers voice amplifiers hooked up to speakers in the classrooms, or requesting the district build an ADA-compliant bathroom on campus.
As Collins walked past the bathrooms, a tone sounded and suddenly the grassy areas between the old buildings — exposed brick, with retrofitted steel beams bracing concrete columns against potential earthquakes — were filled with students transitioning between periods. One student walked up to Collins.
"Are we interviewing?" he said.
"No. Not right now. Go ahead to lunch. Thanks for saying hi."
"What are you doing, then?"
"I'm showing them our building," Collins said.
"Showing them our building?" the student said, walking away. "Our building sucks."