Tacoma kids aren’t asking for much when it comes to each of their schools: a permanent home instead of a string of portable buildings, a sewer system that doesn’t act up in a rainstorm, an auditorium where the lights stay on during their performances.
But put them together and the costs add up; financing the fixes will cost an estimated $500 million, according to Tacoma Public Schools estimates.
The Tacoma School Board heard about conditions in its schools from students, parents and staff members during a public hearing Thursday night.
The board has put forward a list of 14 major projects that would rebuild or remodel schools citywide. But voters first will have to approve the financing. Board members will take a formal vote on the ballot proposal Oct. 25. If they approve – which seems likely, given previous board discussions – voters will decide the measure’s fate in a Feb. 12 election.
Many students who spoke to the board Thursday were from SAMI – the Science and Math Institute. Since the high school opened in 2009, it has housed in a cluster of portable buildings at Point Defiance Park.
“Our school is 13 portables inside a fence, inside a parking lot,” said SAMI senior Gregory Smith.
He and other SAMI students praised the opportunities the school affords them – internships with environmental organizations, hands-on restoration projects within the park, the chance to work alongside scientists at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.
Students said SAMI deserves a building of its own. Two students, Eris Egan and Ashley Nelson, described a school project in which they studied building materials and “green” possibilities, including a rooftop garden.
Other speakers talked about some of the city’s older schools.
Kim Bell said her daughter, a student at Stewart Middle School, tells stories about the building, constructed in 1924.
“When it rains, it stinks,” she said.
She said the school’s ceiling leaks, and there are signs of mold. She invited board members to visit after a rainstorm and experience the odors.
Scooter Spencer, who mentors Stewart kids through a program run by the Urban League, said many students there “don’t feel they have a future.” That feeling isn’t helped by the fact that half their classrooms are in the school basement, he said.
A new building could help lift them up, he suggested.
A crowd of kids and parents from Boze Elementary, led by principal Arron Wilkins, made the case for their building, which dates to 1969.
“We desperately need a new school,” said Cynthea McGuire, PTA secretary.
“We should be on that list,” Wilkins said. “It is our time.”
Emily Seaholm, enrichment coordinator at Grant Center for the Expressive Arts, spoke of organizing classes in the school library, gym, staff lounge and health room because of a lack of classroom space. The school, built in 1919, is not handicapped-accessible; it has steps required to get from the front door to hallways and classrooms.
Wilson High School mom Wendy Kaija described a school plagued by mold, asbestos and leaky windows. The cafeteria is too small, so some kids skip lunch, she said. Her son broke several teeth when he slipped on a slimy locker room floor.
“After 52 years, it’s time to level the playing field,” she said.
Tacoma voters have not approved a construction bond since 2001. Two bond measures, one in 2006 and another in 2009, failed at the polls. In 2010, voters approved a more modest capital levy for more than $140 million to pay for several new schools. Baker Middle School opened in January, and plans for renovation of Washington-Hoyt Elementary School are under way. A new Hunt Middle School has been on hold since the school closed in 2010. But it’s back on the 14-school wish list the board is considering.
Superintendent Carla Santorno said voter approval of the bond proposal would allow the school district to take advantage of historically low interest rates and construction costs.
“If we wait, the cost will go up,” she said. She also said passing the bond would pump money into the local economy and create construction jobs in the city.
Taxpayers in the Tacoma School District pay a total tax rate of just over $7 per $1,000 of assessed value. That includes an operations levy, the capital levy and a previous bond.
If a new bond measure is approved, the tax rate will rise to just over $7.80 per $1,000 through 2020. If it fails, taxes will rise to $8.63 per $1,000 by 2016, school officials estimate. Approval of the bond would give the district the ability to fold the short-term 2010 capital levy into longer-term bond financing at bargain rates – and save money, officials said.