For students at Tacoma’s Wilson High School, climate change is a reality.
It takes place every day on the West End campus.
Inside classrooms on one side of a hallway, explained sophomore Isaac Larson, the school’s antiquated heating system leaves students freezing in the winter. But just across the hall, they sweat.
“You’re either wearing a thermal shirt, or sitting next to the window (to cool off),” he said.
Elsewhere at Wilson, kids say musty classrooms smell bad, teachers must maneuver their laptops to connect to elusive Wi-Fi and a shower in the locker room drips constantly because repair parts are no longer manufactured.
Wilson opened in the fall of 1958, and the old sections are a crazy quilt of patches and fixes. The Tacoma School District estimates it would take $40 million to complete its reconstruction.
What the school hopes to gain, should Tacoma voters approve a $500 million bond request Feb. 12, is equity for the entire campus, and equity with the district’s other comprehensive high schools.
The bond would rebuild or remodel 14 Tacoma schools, half of them built in the 1920s or earlier.
In addition to those major projects, the school district promises safety and security upgrades at most schools – everything from improved alarm systems to front-office windows so school staff members can see who enters and exits. It’s been a dozen years since Tacoma voters approved a bond this size, and some critics think it’s too expensive.
“You are asking for half a billion dollars,” said opponent Ken Miller. “I’d say maybe, OK, we need some of it. But not all of it.”
Deputy School Superintendent Josh Garcia counters: “We are going to be further behind if this doesn’t go through.”
Voters should receive mail-in ballots in the next few days, if they don’t have them already. The bond needs a 60 percent “Yes” vote to pass.
WHAT A ‘YES’ VOTE WOULD COST TACOMA RESIDENTS
If approved, district officials estimate the measure would cost the average Tacoma homeowner about $58.24 a year for the 31-year payback period of the bond measure, based on current housing values. Over that time, the average annual added cost would be 33 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
The district estimates bond passage could reduce tax rates paid for capital improvements in the short term. Officials say they would eliminate about $70 million owed under a 2010 six-year capital levy, and refinance two school projects (Washington-Hoyt Elementary and Hunt Middle School) from that levy over a longer time and at low rates.
One of the biggest winners would be Wilson. The high school would gain new instructional wings, remodeled locker rooms, a new music space connected to the auditorium, a regulation track and other upgrades.
Students would likely remain on campus during construction, although some would be moved temporarily to portable classrooms, Wilson Principal Dan Besett said. (Displacement of students at other schools would vary depending on the size of the site.)
Tacomans with no kids at Wilson likely have no idea what it’s like inside, Besett said. The front that faces Orchard Street looks new; it’s the product of a first phase of new construction largely completed in 2006. The new wing contains administrative offices and classrooms. The school auditorium was remodeled last summer.
But peek beyond that front wing and you’ll discover the rest of the campus, most of which dates to the days when Fats Domino and Frankie Avalon ruled the airwaves.
“We’re not asking for the Taj Mahal,” Besett said. “I truly believe Wilson is not looking at any fluff.”
LEARNING ENVIRONMENT UPGRADES OVERDUE
The story of decay is similar at many of the other targeted schools.
At Grant Center for the Expressive Arts, originally built in 1919, water fountains in parts of the main building have been turned off due to plumbing problems. Classrooms in a newer annex building are sweltering in fall and spring. Rainy day recess for the elementary and pre-school students takes place in a basement. Outdoor stairs crumble and a trash can catches rain in one classroom.
“Our custodians do an amazing job of upkeep,” Principal Jennifer Cooper said. “But you can only patch so many times before something needs to be replaced entirely.”
At Stewart Middle School, the best thing that’s happened to the building in recent years is an electrical fire that damaged the front in 2006.
The damage was repaired. But it only accentuates the contrast between the repaired portion of the school and the rest of it, most of which dates to 1924.
Teachers and students point out a long list of problems: leaking roof and windows, stuffy basement classrooms, wiring that can’t handle modern technology, a faulty heating system, a shaky skybridge connecting the main building to the gym. And any parent who’s had to endure the hard wooden auditorium seats during student performances can attest to the need for cushioning.
“It does impact the learning environment,” said Principal Janet Gates-Cortez.
Many of the district’s remaining 50 schools, including its large and small high schools, would get basic upgrades and small projects – new heating systems, energy-efficient windows, updated restrooms, athletic field and playground upgrades, replacement of worn carpets, masonry repairs and more. The bond would also finance a permanent building for the Science and Math Institute, now located in portable classrooms at Point Defiance Park.
The only schools that would remain virtually untouched by the bond are a half-dozen that have either been recently constructed or deemed in good condition: Geiger, Jefferson, Stafford and Mann elementary schools, and Baker and First Creek middle schools.
Wilson is one of the newer of the schools on Tacoma’s list for major improvements. Others were originally built in the 1920s. The average age is 74 years.
Three of the schools –McCarver and Washington elementary schools and Stewart Middle School – have historic register designations, and the district promises renovations will preserve their exterior architectural character.
SOME SAY TIME IS NOW; OTHERS FEAR COST
Bond proponents say that with interest rates at historic lows and construction firms hungry for work, now is the time to launch a new building program. They say it will be more efficient to rebuild and remodel now than to wait for major breakdowns in the future.
But bond opponents say voters are still under financial strain from the recession and are in no mood to sign on for long-term debt.
Ken Miller said he will vote “No,” with some regret.
He believes that a school building boom financed by the bond would be a distraction from the difficult academic work that must be done to improve Tacoma schools.
“The school board and the administrative team finds it more convenient and comfortable to pick out carpet colors and have ribbon cuttings than to cut the dropout rate,” he said.
Garcia, the deputy school superintendent, disagrees: “We have work to do inside schools as well as to the physical structures. But we are asking the community for help on the outside. We have a number of schools in dire need of significant upgrades.”
Miller wrote an op-ed piece for The News Tribune last month opposing the bond. He wrote a similar article about the district’s 2009 bond, which failed at the polls.
Back then, he said voters didn’t trust the schools. And he said he’s seen nothing since then that would have moved the meter on voter trust.
The 2011 teacher strike “might have further strained the sense that we are all in this together,” Miller said.
He said he understands the need for maintenance. But he thinks the bond includes rebuilding too many schools, when the school district now has excess capacity.
The district projects future growth in student numbers that mandate rebuilding schools like Wainwright Elementary, which was closed in 2011 to save money in a budget crunch. But Miller said he bets schools will move in the near future to other solutions, such as online learning or year-round schooling, that could alleviate the need for some space.
RECENT HISTORY SHOWS LITTLE BOND SUPPORT
Tacoma voters have not approved a major construction bond since 2001, when they gave the go-ahead to issue $450 million worth of bonds. But voters have turned thumbs down on two of the district’s most recent bond proposals: a $300 million request in 2006 and another in 2009.
The 2009 measure drew fire from two city groups – the local chapter of the NAACP and the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance – angry that the district wasn’t making enough progress in educating minority students.
The Ministerial Alliance is endorsing this year’s bond, as is the Tacoma Urban League and the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective. The Tacoma NAACP chapter plans to discuss the issue later this month, chapter education chairman Jonathan Johnson said.
In 2010, Tacoma voters approved a short-term capital levy for $140 million. It was designed to pay for two new middle schools – Baker and Hunt – as well as renovation and rebuilding of the district’s oldest active school, Washington-Hoyt Elementary.
A new Baker opened a year ago. Plans are in the works for Washington, and the Hunt project has been on hold since the school was closed due to low enrollment and low test scores in 2010. But the current bond includes $48 million for a new Hunt.
Willie Stewart, a former Tacoma school administrator and former school board member who is one of the co-chairs of the bond campaign committee, said he believes the strength of the bond proposal is apparent in the number of youth, civic, labor and faith organizations endorsing it.
And he says he believes voters will support it, because it reaches children in so many parts of the district.
“It’s Tacoma-wide,” he said. “It’s not just one section of the city.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
• Tacoma Public Schools:tacomaschools.org
• Tacoma Citizens for Schools campaign committee: renewourcommitment.org
For a story about the Puyallup school bond published in Saturday’s newspaper: thenewstribune.com