Opinion

Think about it: Shining a light on school bond, classrooms

Kelly Shea, the superintendent of Sequim Schools, will spend hours with you showing you school facilities and explaining why the district wants the community to approve the $154 million school bond on the April 22 ballot.

So I took him up on his offer and happened to be on the tour with an interested Sequim resident who wanted to make the point that the most important role a school can play is to prepare children to become productive, satisfied persons.

He wondered as many do if a bond this size was necessary to achieve that goal. Looking fully like a superintendent who had just heard his reason for being eloquently described by this concerned resident, Shea explained the school isn’t keeping up with the facilities that children need today to learn the skills needed for the jobs today.

‘But then there’s that stadium!’

The stadium attracts the laser-like focus of many even though it represents only three percent of the bond. Is it necessary? Shea described the stadium as a stand of seating with a roof. “We cannot host a game here because we don’t have facilities. All our games are away games.”

Ninety-two percent of the School Bond is for classrooms, buildings and areas essential to a safe learning environment. The remaining five percent is for grounds, including athletic fields, transportation and warehouses.

I felt a twinge of nostalgia over high school games I attended and school pride I felt but I was ready to move on to the real money.

‘What’s wrong with the old?’

It’s too old for today’s education needs, but I understand the question. I took it personally when my elementary school was torn down ripping away any nostalgic memories I exhumed when I drove by it. Then my high school was closed for lack of interest in yet another failure to honor the history of my youth.

Seems my elementary school, which by the way was built almost 30 years before I was born, was sitting on a prime piece of view real estate. I will admit to not caring about the view of both the Olympics and Cascades when I was in the fourth grade but I did like touching and smelling the old wood.

In a fit of ironic destiny the school was torn down and replaced with condominiums for retired teachers, although probably not mine since they seemed older than dirt when I attended school.

All those havens of brick craftsmanship and wood that seemed to oil itself went the way of new sleek school construction that multiplied like fast-food places to keep pace with the swelling baby boomer generation.

Somehow those flat-roofed wooden structures didn’t endure like the old stately brick schools. I can imagine it was in the frenzy of construction and cost control that someone wondered why we need to build schools to last 100 years. Kids run, play, throw things and bump into walls. Parents know it; that’s why they buy kid furniture and save the nice stuff for the day the last kid leaves home.

At one time the Sequim school system consisted of the Dungeness School House, now home to community activities and the chair that rides up and down the steep staircase only when it feels like it.

The stately old brick Sequim high school was built in 1935, followed by the gymnasium a leisurely 22 years later in 1955. Then the kids came first as a trickle then a flood when baby boomers started having babies.

The capacity of the high school was expanded in 1968, complete with trendy flat roofs, small windows and thick concrete walls later covered with stucco. Helen Haller, the elementary school, was built in 1967 and an addition in 1978. The kid population continued to explode and portables were brought in for use as temporary classrooms.

Temporary classrooms

Portable classrooms put on surrounding lands emptied out when Greywolf Elementary was built in 1991. Some portables were sold, some remained at Helen Haller and others were moved to the high school to handle kids moving into upper grades.

Those would be the same portables I was in during the tour with Shea. We toured the classrooms built 46 years ago and temporary portables installed 22 years ago. I imagined generations of kids passing through and bumping into walls. Somehow it all felt like a well-maintained but tired old battleship still trying to serve its country.

In truth, the school rooms probably have about the same window-to-wall ratio as battleships or a slightly above-ground bunker. I don’t know what the theory of learning in 1968 was but it didn’t include an environment of daylight and fresh air. I wondered for a moment if the designers even liked kids since they kept them in the dark.

Studies have shown that adults and children read better in daylight. We also think more clearly when we breathe air made fresh by bringing in outside air, exchanges not in buildings of the 1960s. The tour moved on.

We came to what was for me the rarified metal shop that only boys went to in my youth and next to it I was surprised to see a large area with partially dismantled cars on hydraulic lifts. We had inadvertently stepped into a museum disguised as an opportunity to develop mechanical skills to repair 21st century cars; it was only equipped to fix pre-computer cars. This is a lot like training surgeons to do robotic surgery using the latest in rearview mirrors and scalpels.

Stumbling blocks

We passed the tennis court on which an instructor was patiently coaching kids to hit tennis balls. I wonder if you become a better or worse tennis player when you also have to learn to avoid cracks in the concrete; that would be if you didn’t break something stumbling over them.

Traveling to the band area, Shea pointed out that band students must travel from class to the band area, pick up their instruments and travel back to the auditorium to practice, an inefficiency that costs about ten percent of class time. At least it’s an opportunity for sun except when it’s raining. I wonder if the school nurse monitors Vitamin D levels.

Two thousand meals a day pass out of the kitchen that was built for a student population of 1,200 in yet another building in the maze. This culinary feat becomes all the more masterful when one sees that the kitchen is equipped with decades-old equipment, including one device that blew enough of something to cause a fire recently.

It happens that this device was purchased from the Navy, which strengthens my battleship analogy.

We finished the tour in Helen Haller elementary school, which will be rebuilt in the east end of the district. The classrooms were as dark and stale as high school classrooms but more convenient, although I’m not sure that one toilet for each gender is enough in a building that seemed to hold at least 100 children. Part of the old Helen Haller will be torn down and some will be refurbished and used for Olympic Peninsula Academy, the school home for kids in home-school programs.

We walked back to administration through the open campus, in which restrooms opened to quiet sidewalks, and Shea talked about safety and security. The bond will provide for connections between buildings so that students will walk through corridors instead of outside.

The idea, besides getting out of the rain, is to provide control of access to buildings and enable a plan of protection in the event of suspicious activity. He said someone suggested building a fence and I envisioned the same chain-link fence that keeps prisoners in minimum security facilities.

Teachers and kids make a school

Throughout the tour I noticed that each dim classroom seemed to take on a character of its own, which I suspect had much to do with the teacher creating a learning environment. Clearly teachers were making the effort to do the best they can with what they have. Smiles for and interest in the kids were the order of the day.

The spirit of learning was alive and I concluded that children were in good hands. Which raised the question of how much better learning would be in an environment in which form follows function and equipment meets the needs of the 21st century student.

‘Why not wait and build parts of it later?’

Seventeen million dollars, said Shea. The district wants to take advantage of current construction costs and interest rates. Shea says the need won’t go away and the district will come back to the community with another bond measure.

The School Board considered a bond in 2008 and decided for reasons we all know that 2008 was not the year to ask. Shea makes the point that the district has always been a good steward of the bonds. The 1996 bond was refinanced when interest rates fell and as a result that bond will be retired at the end of this year, three years earlier than its due date.

Shine a light in the classrooms

As the man said, it’s all about the future of kids. Kids learn better in daylight and fresh air. Is there a reason not to make schools efficient, safe and secure? Our permanent school buildings are built for the functions of the 1970s and temporary portables should not be permanent. Form needs to follow function and there just aren’t enough jobs for fixing 1970s cars.

Go to www.sequimschools.wednet.edu/Page/3630 to take your own tour.

Think about it and vote by April 22.

 

Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

 

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