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I am deep in the throes of campaigning for a local school bond election.  Every year or two our school district has to undertake this ritual, the legacy of a state constitutional amendment that limited property taxes to 1% of assessed value, unless voters approve a bond levy by a 60%  majority.  "So what?"  You say. "Shouldn't the voters have a say?"  Well, yes, in theory, but in practice it means that necessary school construction projects are put off until our schools are literally crumbling around the kids.  It also means that in times like these, when construction prices are low and construction jobs are desperately needed, voters balk at the idea of any additional property taxes.  

But all of that is just talk.  It is easy enough to say "fine, but not now" to school construction until you see the reality of what some of our kids are asked to live with every day.


This is a hallway ceiling at Hunt Middle School in Tacoma, Washington.  Large parts of the school feature water damage just as severe.  Maintenance staff dutifully replace ceiling panels and repaint when they can, but the water just seeps right through.


This is the roof that produced those leaks.  When Hunt Middle School was built in 1957, I don't think school officials ever envisioned the days of sky high materials costs and 1% property tax caps.  Faced with a booming student population, contractors used "imaginative" measures to cut costs, including a plywood based structure and a "California style" flat roof.  30 years of Northwest weather and no roof replacement funds have created the mold-laden environment its students have to learn in today.


Today, Hunt's problems extend far beyond the roof, and school officials must ask voters to approve enough funds for complete building replacement.


Across town at Stewart Middle School, a stately 1920s vintage building is a pleasant site to the casual observer.  Inside, wires are strung along bare pipes, and students attend after school programs in rooms with missing ceiling tiles and severe water damage.  (Caused by an electrical fire 2 years ago.)



School districts face this problem throughout the State of Washington.  Other states have also jumped on the tax cap bandwagon, creating massive system-wide disasters like the classroom trailer-ridden California schools.  30+ years after most of these laws were passed, school bond elections have become an annual tradition in many parts of the country.

For the parents, teachers and school officials working on the school bond election, Tacoma's school building crisis seems obvious and urgent.  Getting that message out to voters has been a nearly insurmountable task, however.  School bond elections can't be funded by the district, and our total budget for promoting this 300 million dollar bond issue is about $20,000.  (And much of that not materializing.) With the local press concentrating on the cost, our campaign strategy has come down to parent volunteers forwarding emails of school photos, late into the night.  


Our complex system of school funding is a nightmare for school bond campaigns. Given the task of voting "yes" or "no" on the school bond, voters take this as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with virtually any school-related issue, from the amount of school supplies teachers use, to larger more important issues like the state's persistent achievement gap.  Their concerns can and should be addressed, but getting the message across that school bonds are only for buildings has been very challenging.  The only state to expressly guarantee ample funding for basic education in its constitution, the State of Washington is charged with funding educational programming needs like teachers, textbooks, and curriculum.  In the absence of a state income tax, that funding is rarely secure.

Tacoma's school funding mess is not unique.  Schools like Hunt and Stewart are a vivid illustration of the long-term consequences of tax caps, cost cutting, and the general nearsightedness of the past several decades of education funding.  In Washington State we're working hard to change this myopic legacy, but a little more help from the federal government wouldn't hurt. As the Obama administration considers new education initiatives and asks the American public to accept the stimulus plan, please think of Hunt Middle School, and ask your legislators to vote yes for change.

Originally posted to Tacomamama on Thu Mar 05, 2009 at 06:01 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  those pictures are shocking (6+ / 0-)

    (I don't mean to jump in before the diary author has posted a tip jar -- I reloaded a couple of times.)

    I think that updating those school buildings is among the most appropriate uses of stimulus funds.

    I'm hoping that we won't make our current situation worse in California (we have a spending cap on the ballot for May 19).

  •  We need to re-examine our school (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    akeitz, Heiuan, RosyFinch, Ms Citizen

    funding in the state of Washington.  We have replaced almost every single school in Bellevue and The condition of the schools we replaced did not even approach what you show in these photographs...old... yes but not slums.

  •  I am so glad that you brought this up (5+ / 0-)

    I am so glad that you brought this to our attention!  I have been a teacher in Massachusetts for 37 years.  Our buildings are in disrepair and every year we are asked to do more and more with less and less.  The children are the ones who suffer.  We teachers do our best, but when we are given fewer and fewer resources, it is impossible to deliver the best results to all of our students.  And about shabby buildings - so often this is put in sterile terms - "the utility systems are past their useful life".  This means leaky roofs (I had a waterlogged tile from a ceiling leak fall in my classroom just after I had a student move his desk away from the leak), freezing rooms and in our school, a 200,000+ gallon boiler that broke.  We missed three days of school and the school had to dispose of nearly a quarter of a million gallons of toxic waste since the water was contaminated with oil.  Our public schools desperately need a serious infusion of money.  Good luck with your campaign.

  •  you must be kidding (0+ / 0-)

    rasie taxes now?  As capital is eroding faster and faster everyday?  As jobs are lost?  And you expect America to understand this when they vote in 2010?  If the dems raise a single user tax (gas, electricity, food, education), they will lose the majority in 2010.

  •  Good luck to you! Remind people that (4+ / 0-)

    education is the path out of personal and system-wide failure. If we don't take care of our students we are not taking care of ourselves. Repairing and rebuilding schools is not an altruistic gift. It is a selfish and self-interested necessity.

    The kind of life we lead 20 years from now will depend largely on the success or failure of schools today.

    We need to get this right, people.

    Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking. -J.M. Keynes

    by elropsych on Thu Mar 05, 2009 at 06:57:36 PM PST

  •  There will never be enough money for (0+ / 0-)

    schools until we get rid of the administrators.

    That's why we will have to destroy the public school system and start over.

    And vouchers will do it.

    I want the government off my body, out of my bedroom, and I'd prefer they not be on my lawn.

    by Village expects idiot home soon on Thu Mar 05, 2009 at 07:16:25 PM PST

  •  We have an impasse here. There is distrust (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ms Citizen, shann

    everywhere.  We have taxpayers that feel that they are getting less and less for their money.  And teachers that are running as fast as they can.  We are not getting to the bottom of the problem.  We spend more per student than anyplace else in the world and we get less for it.  Our students are not keeping place with the rest of the world(and no I will not be satisfied with our best being as good as their best).  We owe all our children a decent education.  Our school buildings are largely in disrepair, our books and supplies are antiquated and our children carry 30 lb backpacks when all they should be carrying is a 5 lb laptop.  Our teachers should have a way to test our students after every portion of each subject maybe everyday so they know it's time to move on and no I do not mean grading papers.  The technology exists, we use it for polling elections.  We have wasted 30 years of resources and the situation is just perplexing.

  •  Just came back from phone banking (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sberel, kevin22262

    The people who will tell me how they are voting are voting "yes" but more won't say or haven't voted. I wish the schools didn't have to plan their building projects according to what would win an election, and that we could all get back to the business of helping our kids.

    Kitchen Table Issues

    by jenyum on Thu Mar 05, 2009 at 10:26:43 PM PST

    •  Can't you get money out of the stimulus? (0+ / 0-)
      •  The Tacoma School Board has gone to DC... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        ...and we are getting something like 26 million.  Unfortunately, the district needs 300 million.  

        Yeah, the prices are a little unreal these days.

        Kitchen Table Issues

        by jenyum on Thu Mar 05, 2009 at 10:41:59 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  For 300 million, how many schools do you replace (0+ / 0-)

          and how many do you retrofit.

          •  We are replacing two, retrofiting a third (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            and finishing a replacement on a fourth. Then there are the general district wide smaller capital projects like roof replacements, wiring, communications upgrades etc.  

            We need that small cap money in there or we'll end up with more schools in such disrepair down the road.  Part of the cost is because the state won't allow districts to build schools like Hunt anymore, the standards are much higher than standard commercial buildings.  Down the road this should save the state money, but in the short term it sure doesn't make the sales job easier.

            Kitchen Table Issues

            by jenyum on Thu Mar 05, 2009 at 11:10:58 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  The small cap stuff makes sense but I know the (0+ / 0-)

              question always comes up, we already spend a fortune on schools why do you need more.  Somehow we as voters don't understand how this all works.  It is going to take alot of education.  Why you are being good stewarts of their money and how this is really a good investment.  When people don't understand, their tendency is just to vote no especially when things are tight and once their children are out of school, you can forget it.  People forget that somebody else paid for their children and now they need to pay it forward.

              •  You know I thought that was it for a while (4+ / 0-)

                I really did.  I wanted to show people the details and answer all of their questions.  I even went nuts making charts and graphs of test scores and remodeled schools, and finding studies and answering questions about the details of the plan.

                Then I looked at our webstats and it hit me.  38 people had googled "Tacoma school bond" since February 9th.  I know I'm going to sound cynical when I say this, but I don't think people really want the details.  I think they just need to connect with the issue on an emotional level in order to really "get it."  In the same way you would if your child went to that school.  So I try to provide the details but at the same time, I'm not sure that's what it is really about.  Pictures seem to speak louder than anything else.


                by jenyum on Thu Mar 05, 2009 at 11:59:35 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

              •  pay it forward (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Ms Citizen

                "pay it forward" ... Always good words!

  •  Tip jar (I guess?) (7+ / 0-)

    I'm still figuring out how this works.  Please let me know if this isn't the right way to do it.

    Kitchen Table Issues

    by jenyum on Thu Mar 05, 2009 at 11:11:44 PM PST

  •  The tax ratchet (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kevin22262, jenyum

    As long as we have media and a major political party that mislead or lie about government spending and a conviction that taxes can only go one way, we'll have tragedies like that in Washington and many other places around the country.  Schools aren't the only victims, but the buildings do begin to show their age after a while.  The idea that we can grow but that we don't have to pay for it is a dangerous poison. The ratcheting down of tax levels is killing our society!

    No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. H. L. Mencken

    by jim0121 on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 08:29:10 PM PST

  •  The same here in Kansas (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ms Citizen, jenyum, danmitch

    It took four tries to pass our bond issue.  Each time the plans for remodeling and new construction were changed.  By the time we passed it on the fourth try, it ended up costing more and we didn't get near as much for our money. If the first bond issue would have passed, the whole package would have cost less and we would have gotten more for our money.  Also, there was the expense of campaigning for  the bond issue.  

    Also, sorry to say, the patrons of our small community who were against the bond were the elderly with no children in school.  In one letter to editor from an elderly "no" patron, it was suggested that instead of wasting money on fixing a leaky roof when it snows that "the little darlings you teach could just get up on the roof and shovel it."  That's how outrageous it got.  But there were several elderly people who did support it and campaign for the bond issue; however most of the campaigners were parents and, of course, educators.  

    I am a middle school teacher and would like everyone reading this to know that I and other teachers bust our humps to provide the best education we can for kids.  It's not easy to reach all kids.  Also, learning is not easy to quantify.  Trying to compare test scores with other countries is sometimes like comparing apples and oranges.  In our public school system, we educate ALL children, no matter what disabilities or other issues these children have.  

  •  I have started a Flickr Group for similar photos (0+ / 0-)

    If you anyone has photos like this from their own school system, please contribute them. We need to keep this issue in the spotlight, in these days of tight budgets.

    by jenyum on Sat Mar 07, 2009 at 09:18:44 AM PST

  •  Just noticed this diary (0+ / 0-)

    and I am horrified. Absolutely horrified.

    Not just with the pictures of Hunt Middle School, but with images of my own school just one hour away in Bellevue.

    Bellevue is in the middle of replacing or refitting all schools in the district to make them compliant to new earthquake codes, but the buildings are nothing near as bad as Tacoma's. The new buildings are awesome, but the old buildings are not bad at all.

    I am lucky to live in a school district where people vote for schools, I guess it helps that Bellevue has the highest income of any district in the state.

    We need new priorities in this state starting with higher property taxes, creating an income tax, and getting rid of the sales tax. And we must start now.

    This is our time to start rebuilding America, what are we wasting it for?

    A volunteer with the Northwest Progressive Institute

    by danmitch on Sat Mar 07, 2009 at 09:38:43 PM PST

    •  Tacoma's not all like this (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      These are the last three middle schools to be rebuilt, and they did start with the worst. Our new schools are very nice.  I truly think our district cares and is doing their best with what they get.  

      But yeah, it is sad that it has taken this long and that our local press doesn't even really consider this a story. Our kids deserve better, we need to start believing that and get outraged.

      by jenyum on Sat Mar 07, 2009 at 09:49:25 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well that's good (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Ms Citizen, jenyum

        As long as they are trying it's good. But if these were the three that were the best...Something is not right.

        The press won't cover it, so create your own press! Who said that the legacy media had to control everything? Screw the Seattle Times and the local Tacoma paper, make your own news. On the daily kos, on, on other places. It's one of the things I'm doing for the Northwest Progressive Institute. I volunteer with some fourteen other people from the state and it is a truly great experience to blog with them. If they won't cover the news then I will. This is a post that I wrote:  about an environmental awareness week at my school. When searching Google news for "Interlake High School" it is the second result. It's about creating our own news.

        Our kids do deserve more, and not just kids living in Bellevue, but kids in Tacoma, Yakima, Bellingham, and Kelso. Every student deserves a good education and educational experience as a right.

        A volunteer with the Northwest Progressive Institute

        by danmitch on Sat Mar 07, 2009 at 10:25:25 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Creating My Own Press, So true (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Ms Citizen, danmitch

          The paper walked around one of these schools for 2 and a half hours and came out with a lukewarm tale about the recession and taxes.  If they are not indifferent to the conditions in these schools, they didn't do a very good job of conveying that.

          by jenyum on Sun Mar 08, 2009 at 10:24:22 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

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