Bethel School District voters are about to get tested, number two pencils not required. What is required is filling out a special election ballot and returning it by Feb. 13.
The district hopes for an early valentine in the form of a whopping $443 million school bond. Also on the ballot are two levy renewals needed to fund special education, professional development and updates in classroom technology.
The ballot will test voters’ resolve to address numerous problems, chiefly overcrowding. The funds raised would build three new schools, including the district’s fourth comprehensive high school; rebuild Challenger High alternative school; modernize Bethel High and expand four other schools.
The ambitious request makes sense when looking at numbers for projected growth. Over the next decade, enrollment in the Spanaway-based district is projected to increase by 3,000 students.
That growth puts a strain on core facilities like restrooms, cafeteria space and gyms. If no new space is added in the next three years, the district anticipates it will be more than 5,000 students over capacity.
Research on the effects of overcrowded classrooms confirms what common sense tells us: Too many students in one classroom impacts the quality of education. Smaller classes, especially in earlier grades, means better attendance and improved performance.
Right now Bethel has over 2,000 more students than its buildings can accommodate. Close to 200 portables dot the periphery of school properties.
Two years ago voters rejected the district’s $236.7 million bond request. We blame an attached $29 million aquatic center that included splash pools, lazy rivers and water slides. It was touted as a community asset, but all the community saw was frivolous spending.
After the 2016 bond defeat -- not once, but twice, in both February and April -- the district wisely took time to reflect. Instead of stepping up to the plate for another swing in 2017, officials assembled a long-range task force of community members, school staff, parents and students.
The group met over seven months and scrutinized district needs. The deliberative process also included an online survey asking the community to share observations and suggestions.
The conclusion was unanimous: Adding capacity was the No. 1 priority.
The last bond approved by Bethel voters was twelve years ago. Superintendent Tom Seigel reports the work was completed on time and under budget.
We won’t pretend taxes on a bond this size, in addition to two levy renewals, are insignificant, though the district calculates that homeowners will actually pay less starting in 2019 even if voters say yes. That’s because the Legislature last year revamped school funding with a statewide property tax scheme, one that relies heavily on property-rich districts like Seattle.
The Bethel district is certainly not property-rich, but its 202-square-mile service area has the most planned growth of anywhere in Pierce County. Since the start of this academic year, it’s welcomed 450 new students. Hundreds more are waiting to start pre- school but can’t because of limited space.
Students in the Spanaway-Graham area deserve better. Now is the time to address overcrowded schools, outdated facilities and less-than optimal learning environments.
Pass the test, Bethel voters.