Bethel School District at a crossroads for funding

With overcrowding and an insufficient capital budget lead to some tough questions for the district as soon as next year

The Bethel School District has a problem.

Already faced with overcrowded schools, the district is adding students at a rapid rate and has run into a budget issue as to where to house them.

In February, voters turned down a $443 million bond package for capital projects, the third such bond rejection in recent years. The bond needed a 60 percent supermajority to pass, and finished with just 53.98 percent. This low support means Bethel School District will have to take some severe measures if one last attempt falls flat.

Tom Seigel, the school district’s superintendent, has been candid about the need for the bond.

“The lack of space does impact student learning,” he said. “You can have all the operating money in the world, but you still need a place to put your kids. We need to pass a bond. We need to do it now or we need to do it in the future and try to dig our way out, but we need to pass a bond.”

Without the funding, choices become dire for the district as student numbers continue to increase.

“We have certain paths we can follow to house kids for school,” he said. “One is not available to us. The bond to expand buildings failed. Another option we are looking at is to implement reboundarying. We’ll look at the attendance areas of all 27 schools in our district and see what we can move around.”

This is at best a stop-gap solution. Seigel said the district’s southern schools have a little wiggle room, but not much. Rocky Ridge, Kapowsin and North Star elementary schools have some room for students from further north to be bused down. Another option would be to convert a middle school into an elementary school. The 2018-2019 school year will be a planning year for this or other contingencies, and new boundaries will come into effect in the 2019-20 school year with the following year another assessing and planning year.

Other options include running two shifts at high schools (from 6 a.m. to noon and noon to 6 p.m.), running year-round schools with rotating blocks of students and no fixed summer break, converting a K-8 school to a K-5 school, converting a middle school to an elementary school (which would cause simple logistics problems because elementary students are smaller than their middle school counterparts) and purchasing multiple portable classrooms.

That whole complicated mess is because of the failure of the bond, which would have constructed a new high school, two elementary schools, renovating Bethel High School, replacing Challenger High School, expanding Cedarcrest Middle School, Evergreen and Naches Trail elementary school and Elk Plain K-8 School. The funds also would have been used for district-wide health, safety and other capital improvements.

This is not to say that the voters are against schools. Voters renewed a $128 million operations levy and a $22 million technology levy, and the majority supported the bond – just not enough to pass. A bond passed on the ninth attempt in 2001 and in 2006. The law states a district can only run a bond on the ballot twice in the same calendar year. Even so, the district voters have denied 16 of 20 bond attempts dating back to 1980. The district’s own studies place this largely at the door of low voter turnout (just 25 percent of Bethel School District parents registered to vote actually voted in February).

Seigel said he has recommended to the school board that the district try to pass the bond one more time this November.

“It normally takes three years from a bond passing to an operable building,” he said. “We could do it in 25 months, but that would be difficult and everything would have to go right. That’s last gasp.”

The Bethel School District has a track record under Seigel (who took the helm in 2001) of coming in before schedule and under budget on capital projects. Even so, he knows how burdensome taxes can be in Pierce County. Seigel said he hopes that a legislative quirk will ease the tax burden on local property owners and convince them to vote in favor of the bond this fall.

“The press coverage has been on McCleary,” he said, referring to the school funding court case. “But the legislature passed a levy swap as well. there is angst on taxes going up, and I know this, but if this 2019 bond passes, taxes will actually go down considerably.”

The levy swap, going into effect Jan. 1, 2019, will make it so every school district gets funding allocated out by student, rather than by the property value in the district. Rich and poor districts alike will get some equity in school funding. This means taxes go down in most of rural Washington and up in more affluent King County. The Pierce County Assessor has estimated the county’s tax burden could drop by as much as $442 million.

Even so, Pierce County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States, and the Bethel School District added 450 students last year.

“There is a lot of building around us at the moment,” Seigel said. “For every apartment added, we can plan on around .5 to .6 children per unit.”

Housing prices remain considerably cheaper than King County. Pierce County’s median home is $247,000 compared to King County’s $650,000 and Seattle’s $750,000. This means a lot of working families will continue to head to Pierce (and Snohomish) County and commute to work in Seattle and King County.

“We’ve always been a bedroom community,” Seigel said. “Seattle is a huge economic engine. We are going to have more growth. There’s a county plan to change residential zoning now, so we could become even denser in a rectangle near the school district headquarters.”

The district currently uses 195 portable classrooms, a supposedly temporary measure that quickly ends up costing nearly as much as a regular classroom which could last decades longer.

“We’ve been using some of these portables for 40 years,” Seigel said. “We are budgeting an astronomical amount of money for these portables, about $600,000 for each one.”

The board will act on the bond recommendation, for the same $443 million the district asked for in February. Voters will have the chance to decide the issue again this November.


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