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Published in Print: June 6, 2001, as Side-by-Side States Are Far Apart In Funding for Facilities

Side-by-Side States Are Far Apart In Funding for Facilities

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School district leaders in this small, eastern Washington town have an enviable dilemma. The state recently promised to give them $4.3 million to cover roughly half the cost of a new elementary school—an allocation that surpassed by more than $1 million the amount the district was expecting to receive.

Now the local officials must decide what to do with the windfall: Do they use it for other capital projects? Or do they send the difference back to Deer Park taxpayers? Across the border in Idaho, school officials could scarcely hope to be faced with such a problem. In a state where districts must muster a two-thirds majority to pass local school bonds, and the state offers next to nothing in the way of aid for school construction, districts have been forced to postpone school projects for years—even after the structural safety of their facilities becomes a pressing concern.

When Idaho districts do build schools, they're typically confined to much tighter budgets. And with local taxpayers footing the whole bill, there's just no room for extras.

Researchers aiming to determine how the state role in school construction affects local districts need look no farther than these two neighboring states.

The Evergreen State has a history of chipping in to build schools that dates back to 1889, the year Washington achieved statehood and its founding fathers set aside a portion of revenues from the sale of timber on state land to help build schools. As timber revenues have dwindled in recent decades, state lawmakers have dipped into the general fund to help finance the state's share of school projects.

In the Gem State, meanwhile, districts have always been responsible for paying the construction costs for their own school buildings—even in rural areas where limited tax bases make it hard for local communities to shoulder the entire cost of new schools.

"Idaho schools are far more cost-conscious and utilitarian as a consequence," said Steven J. McNutt, a Spokane-based architect familiar with school projects in both states. "It's not to say they're bad schools, they just have leaner budgets. More people have to be satisfied with the status quo."

Condemned To Making Do

School officials in Wendell were among those Idahoans content to maintain the status quo—until February of last year, when the district's middle school building was condemned.Taxpayers in the tiny dairy-farming community two hours east of Boise were still paying off the debt on the bond they passed in 1992 to build a new high school, and district leaders were hesitant to ask them to dig deeper into their pocketbooks to support a new middle school. The 85-year-old brick building had its share of imperfections, they knew, but they would just have to make do.

All of that changed when a structural engineer was hired to determine if the building could support a new elevator, and samples taken from the building's foundation crumbled into pieces. The building was declared unfit for occupancy and boarded up—leaving school officials scrambling to find new accommodations. Students finished out the academic year using a split schedule at the high school: Middle school students attended classes on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, while the high schoolers came on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

This school year, the juggling act continues. A third of the district's 225 middle school students are bused 10 miles to open classroom space at a state school for deaf and blind students, while the others are shoehorned into a combination of portable classrooms and outbuildings behind the condemned school. With no space for lockers—and their old blue-metal lockers standing empty in the deserted building—students get by with bulging backpacks and a second set of textbooks for use at home.

Staff members are piled into shared office space.

"But our window view is beautiful," Principal Marcia Hallett said wryly during a tour of the tiny office she shares with the district's maintenance supervisor. "We look out on the old boarded-up building."

Despite such circumstances, and even with majority support from local voters, officials of the 1,150-student district fell short last October in their quest for a bond to build a new middle school. Sixty-one percent of those going to the polls said yes—not enough to surpass the two-thirds required to pass a bond under state law.

"It's not a matter of people not seeing the need for a new school," said Superintendent Larry R. Manly, noting that the area's farmers are likely feeling economically pinched by a recent drought. "It's a matter of who is providing the dollars for school construction."

Some Help Coming

While Wendell's dilemma may seem especially acute, it is hardly the only district in Idaho struggling with facilities issues. Donald P. Hutchison, a Boise-based architect, says that "a large percentage" of rural schools in Idaho are old and potentially unsafe.

"Everyone knows these buildings are unsafe," Mr. Hutchison said. "But nobody has the guts to go in there and condemn them the way these guys [in Wendell] did. That's the only way they're unique."

When structurally unsound buildings are left unchecked and unmended, the architect added, the situation could be grim in the event of an earthquake. "When the foundation goes down, the entire building goes down," Mr. Hutchison said. "It's just like a sand castle." Idaho leaders were forced to grapple with such safety concerns this past legislative session, following a state district court judge's February ruling that the system of paying for school construction failed to satisfy a constitutional requirement that guarantees students access to a "safe environment conducive to learning."

In response, the legislature approved a $10 million program that subsidizes the interest on construction financing garnered through low-interest, health-and-safety loans made by commercial banks to public school districts.

Wendell netted approximately $1.5 million in state interest subsidies through the program—enough to persuade 71 percent of the district's voters to approve a $4.6 million levy for a new middle school in another vote last month.

While all's well that ends well in Wendell, some state leaders maintain that in a year in which lawmakers had a $300 million budget surplus to work with—and sent $111 million back to taxpayers in rebates—the $10 million worth of subsidies amounts to too little, too late.

"This basically helped districts that had the most severe problems," said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, a Democrat whose legislative district includes Wendell. "I was willing to vote for it, but it's certainly not enough."

But many Idaho legislators maintain that school construction funding, except in circumstances of extreme hardship, is still best left up to local communities. If the state started buying school buildings for districts, they say, it would make district officials less accountable to local voters.

"You've got to have some kind of accountability, and that's where it comes from," said Speaker of the House Bruce Newcomb, a Republican. "It comes from the local folks. If you left it up to most superintendents, they'd prefer to build a Cadillac of a school, when the kids' needs could be met with a good, old-fashioned Ford or Chevy."

Getting Ahead

In the 2,000-student Deer Park district in Washington state, meanwhile, access to significant state funding means that school leaders will be able to replace a cramped, 60-year-old elementary school well before the structural safety of the building becomes a concern.

In recent years, school officials have made cosmetic touch-ups to the classic brick schoolhouse with a white steeple, putting on a fresh layer of paint and installing new carpeting. There are ample signs, though, that the student population has already outgrown the building: Two portable classrooms sit outside, a gym doubles as a cafeteria that doubles as an auditorium, and a nurse's office is crowded with reams of colorful paper and other art supplies.

In addition, the building has poor insulation, an inefficient heating system, and a wing added in the 1970s that includes a distracting "open classroom" layout, said Steven Howard, the school facilities manager in this fiscally conservative farming and logging community 15 miles north of Spokane.

On the plus side, Mr. Howard notes, the roof doesn't leak and the structural integrity of the building is sound. With the state picking up roughly half the $8.5 million cost of a new elementary school, "we haven't had to resort to scare tactics or imply that it's an unsafe building in order to get support for its replacement," Mr. Howard said.

School officials in the nearby Central Valley district are also using state money to get ahead of their construction needs—but on a much larger scale. The 11,000-student district recently passed a $78 million bond issue to simultaneously replace its two high schools built four years apart in the late 1950s.

Though the district has decided to "front fund" the massive construction project with its local bond revenues rather than depend on state aid, it will receive a $23 million reimbursement from the state to offset the total cost of the construction project. That money, in turn, will be used to pay for needed renovations at four elementary and two middle schools.

"We would have had to go for another bond issue to do these other school sites," said Superintendent R. Wallace Stanley. "We would not be able to do the other work without the state funding."

Still, education officials say, Washington state's school construction program is far from perfect.

Its critics complain that the state- reimbursement formula underestimates the amount of square footage per student that is needed in a modern school. In addition, the state's practice of awarding school construction money in July means that districts sometimes have to delay breaking ground on projects as they wait for the check to arrive from Olympia.

But perhaps districts' biggest gripe is that in order to gain access to any state construction aid, they must first get approval for the local share.

In the 16,000-student Bethel district, 10 miles south of Spokane, district leaders unsuccessfully attempted eight bond issues between 1993 and 2000 to accommodate growing enrollment. The district finally passed a $84 million bond issue for new schools this past February, but facilities director Jay Reiffel says the delay has taken its toll.

"When you don't pass a bond, you just get more and more crowded," Mr. Reiffel said. "You have to take more and more drastic measures to accommodate the crush of students."

Regardless of its flaws, the continued access to state aid in Washington state means that there is less "pent-up need" for school construction projects than in Idaho, said Jim Christensen, an architect with Architects West, a firm based in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

"Washington is more likely to keep pace," Mr. Christensen said. "Whereas Idaho more continually falls behind."

'Riding in Style'

Though the Central Valley construction sites in Washington state still consist of little more than the steel-beam skeletons of future schools, it is already clear that they will come fully stacked with something that even newer Idaho schools tend to do without: amenities.

Each of the Central Valley high schools is designed to accommodate 1,600 students, and each will have separate weight, gymnastics, and wrestling rooms, in addition to one main gymnasium and two "practice" gyms. Each will have red-brick exteriors, windows throughout, and a state-of-the-art performing arts center that will eliminate the need to travel to the Spokane Opera House for student performances.

The current $40 million renovation of the historic 90-year-old Lewis and Clark High School building in downtown Spokane also includes some plusher features, some of which Mr. McNutt, the Spokane architect, speculates were made possible in part because the state kicked in $13 million for the project.

At Lewis and Clark, a large pipe organ has been reconstructed and restored in an auditorium that also includes a new, computerized sound-and-light system. The school's original terrazzo floors were replaced with tile made of Italian marble. The entry to a new gym complex includes a 45-foot-high atrium.

Mr. McNutt concedes that such spaces are more "qualitative" than they are functional. But he says a good school environment can make a positive contribution to a student's overall educational experience.

"You could probably get a positive experience in a cave with the right set of teachers," Mr. McNutt said. "But I think a better-quality school is perceived at a conscious or subconscious level by the kids. They appreciate the educational environment more because of it."

Even in those Idaho districts that can afford to support new school construction, local architects report that schools loaded with such "extras" are less common than they are in Washington state. And there's less work to go around, the architects say.

Because of the financial limitations faced by Idaho districts in building new schools, Mr. McNutt's firm, Northwest Architectural Company, tends to do more work in its home state of Washington.

"We have a portfolio of Washington quality schools that they can't afford," Mr. McNutt said of Idaho districts. "They are reluctant to hire an architect who doesn't have a portfolio of schools that shows they can stretch the dollar farther."

Mr. Christensen, the Coeur d'Alene architect, agrees that tighter budgets often translate into fewer "architectural niceties" in Idaho schools.

At the new 1,200-student high school that opened this past fall near the Washington border in Post Falls, Idaho, for example, the exterior of the building is concrete block, which is cheaper than a brick surface. Likewise, vinyl tile paves the hallways, rather than more expensive stone tile or carpeting, and the school has just one gymnasium, with an attached mezzanine that can be used for various athletic activities.

School officials opted to build a "commons" area with fold-out bleachers rather than a more expensive auditorium. Architects designed the building in such a way that an auditorium can be added later, but school officials didn't want to add any more than necessary to the $18 million bond issue they asked voters in the 4,400-student district to pass.

As it turned out, they knew the fiscal limits of their community well: Voters passed the bond for the new high school with exactly a two-thirds majority. If there had been one fewer affirmative vote among the 5,487 total votes cast, the school would not have been approved.

In the end, though, the budgetary trade-offs Post Falls school leaders made to build an affordable school influence aesthetics much more than they affect educators' abilities to provide high-quality academic programs within school walls, Mr. Christensen said.

"It's like comparing a Chevrolet to a Buick, or in some cases, a Chevrolet to a Cadillac," Mr. Christensen said, picking an analogy often used in such discussions. "They both get you down the road fine, but in one case, you're riding in style."

Vol. 20, Issue 39, Pages 23,25

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