School Board president hears 11th-hour plea from Arbor Heights principal, parents

(Parent volunteer working with student at end of AH’s long hallway connecting portables)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

In less than an hour, Arbor Heights Elementary supporters plan to rally outside School District headquarters in SODO – in advance of the School Board’s next meeting.

At that meeting (4:15 pm start for board business, 5 pm for public comment), the Board is scheduled to consider the formal introduction of the latest draft of the BEX IV levy, a project list totaling almost $700 million.

It includes a plan to use levy money to build a replacement for AH Elementary – more than 60 years old and falling apart – but not until 2018 (moved up one year from the previous draft, as reported here yesterday), while the district is using levy money to open other new schools as early as 2015.

This morning, School Board president Michael DeBell visited Arbor Heights to see its dilapidation firsthand and listen to the eleventh-hour plea from second-year principal Christy Collins and two members of the Arbor Heights parent community.

He agreed that Arbor Heights’ condition is a “critical situation,” but made no commitments to change where it stands on the BEX list. Ahead, see some of what he saw, in a tour that began at the stairs from SW 104th to Arbor Heights’ front entrance.

Collins told DeBell along the way that almost three dozen families who toured Arbor Heights before this school year opted to go elsewhere – and when she surveyed a sampling, they all cited the building. Starting out on the street, she pointed out it has no parking lot,which raises safety issues for everything from bus dropoffs to staff and parent parking, and a neighborhood-congestion problem before and after school (We saw it firsthand as we arrived at 9 am to cover DeBell’s visit)

Some safety problems come with labels:

The asbestos warning is in coat closets throughout many classrooms – and while the district says they’ve handled the problem, according to parent Elise Olson – who along with Collins and fellow parent Darci Severns led the tour – they have no proof, and, she says, in most rooms they’re not used.

A major wing of the school is all old portables, fused together with a very long hallway of cinder-block walls. Two of the school’s problems can be seen along that hallway:

The paint continues to peel – with layers of lead paint likely beneath – because of a water-drip problem. And if you look up at the top of that photo, you will see wiring installed not by the district, but as part of a project by now-retired teacher Mark Ahlness, meant, among other things, to get some Internet access – which for various reasons is not centrally available for AH.

Back to peeling paint. It’s also one of the problems with a bathroom visited during this morning’s tour:

The sinks clearly showed their age, and one was running water that could not be shut off during our visit. Water trouble also proved legendary in a classroom:

That’s teacher Alisa Weaver, who spoke at the BEX meeting at Madison Middle School last month, telling the story of what happened in that closet – a broken pipe that flooded her classroom during the school day. Photos from that day are tacked up inside the closet door:

The problem with the pipes cannot be fixed, we were told, so they are not sure what will happen during the cold-weather season this year.

Even if they are not related to pipe problems, windows and doors are a challenge around the campus:

That door might look OK to you. But because it has no glass, it has to be kept open, Collins explains. The school would have to pay $300 for each door that needs glass – and doesn’t have those resources. She told DeBell that the Arbor Heights demographic is in a challenging place – not low-income enough for extra support funds, not high-income enough to be able to generate large sums of money at fundraisers. And then there’s the simple issue of waiting for maintenance work:

That’s an old-fashioned rusty chain-link door, with perilous protrusions, that opens into the indoor playcourt – a dark area that Collins said ruefully has the nickname “the jail”:

Here’s what it looks like indoors (the mural was painted by volunteers in 2011, to try to brighten it up; the area also is used for storage):

And the outdoor playground has challenges too – it’s almost entirely asphalt, with sunken areas that transform into “Lake Arbor Heights” during rainstorms:

Along the way, while listening to the concerns voiced by the principal and parents, DeBell expressed sympathy, but made no promises. He said there are two alternate financing mechanisms by which the district might be able to move up the work (one of which involves about $20 million in proceeds from selling no-longer-needed school properties) – but reiterated that there are many challenges around the district.

What happens next? We’ll find out during the board’s 4:15 pm meeting; one week from today, there’s a 4 pm session, also at district headquarters, for public comment on the BEX IV list; then at the board’s next official meeting on November 7th, a final vote is expected.

No decision on other funding for accelerating Arbor Heights – or anything else – can be made until after the levy passes, DeBell warned, since the money that would have to be borrowed through other financing mechanisms would have to be paid back with levy proceeds.

24 Replies to "School Board president hears 11th-hour plea from Arbor Heights principal, parents"

  • AH Parent October 17, 2012 (3:31 pm)

    Thanks WSB for chronicling the visit today from Director DeBell!

  • Bonnie October 17, 2012 (3:47 pm)

    Thanks WSB! Here is my concern though and I don’t know if it is a valid concern because I don’t know how these things work. Let’s say they move AH way up on the list. Will it stay way up? Is the list set in stone after the voting is done in Feb or can they tweak things up? I just worry about them saying they’ll rebuild and then change their minds. I have heard that AH has been on the BEX levies before but they ran out of funds and never got to AH.

  • Jessica Pierce October 17, 2012 (4:23 pm)

    Thank you WSB for your continued support!

  • Amanda Nokes October 17, 2012 (4:34 pm)

    Thank you Tracy for the coverage. Thank you Lisa and Darcy for your unwavering love and loyalty. Thank you Principal Collins for your care, kindness and dedication.

  • AN October 17, 2012 (5:07 pm)

    That school looks like a prison…except that I think a prison is WAY NICER!
    I can’t believe that they would even allow people in a building with exposed electrical and pipes so old that they can’t even repair them. I’m sure that there is mold everywhere.
    The play ground seems very unsafe with all the cracks. I bet nobody from the board has a child or grand child at this school, especially Debell.
    If they did, this school would never have gotten this bad. Fork up the money!

  • AH Parent October 17, 2012 (5:19 pm)

    Thank you WSB for covering this critical issue for our neighborhood, for our children. Kudos to Principal Collins for keeping a rebuild on the front burner! And much gratitude to Lisa and Darcy for representing all of us, parents and kids. Arbor Heights is a wonderful community with amazing students. Praying Director DeBell is able to take action and speed up this LONG process.

  • AH Parent October 17, 2012 (5:23 pm)

    You are correct, it looks like a prison. What’s worse is that these pictures don’t include how BAD the school smells. The stench of urine from the boys bathrooms is unbelievable. I honestly have never been in such a dilapidated heap in my life, yet I send my children there every day? Not easy for this mom. :( Only the great teachers and nice community keep us coming back. Thankful for that!

  • Trying! October 17, 2012 (5:25 pm)

    So transparent! Don’t believe it! THe only reason DeBell is visiting is because they fear the protest of the parents of AH students and their supporters. If the Levy is supported that will be the end of it!
    ‘No decision on other funding for accelerating Arbor Heights – or anything else – can be made until after the levy passes, DeBell warned, since the money that would have to be borrowed through other financing mechanisms would have to be paid back with levy proceeds.’

  • Bonnie October 17, 2012 (5:26 pm)

    I bet they don’t show pictures like these when they are bragging about what wonderful schools they have for our children. (the video they played for us at the BEX meeting at Madison)

  • Objective October 17, 2012 (5:58 pm)

    I like how the BEX vote/final decision is AFTER the Nov 6 vote — charter schools! Interesting to say the least.

  • Kim October 17, 2012 (6:22 pm)

    Thank you WSB for such thorough reporting here with supportive photography. As a former parent of AH, I concur that the school’s physical make-up is beyond normal bounds. The SSD has established and maintained such an entrenched foundation of low expectation that calling to question the condition of the building is considered “complaining” by the district. One of the best things AH has going for it, and this is after years of trying, is the advanced placement Spectrum program. The slowly growing program will be unsustainable as it stands with a building that is dangerous at baseline.

  • KL October 17, 2012 (8:23 pm)

    Thanks for this rundown. Wow, I had no idea it was so bad. Asbestos? Lead paint? Broken pipes? There are old buildings, and then there are dangerous hovels. My daughters will attend this school (at least if current boundaries stay the same) starting in 2015. Seattle school district, blergh!!

  • Sinky October 17, 2012 (9:20 pm)

    About the sinks in the bathrooms: the faucets are so close to the far inside edge of the bowl of the sink that it is impossible to avoid making contact with your hands when washing. There’s no way that is sanitary!

  • elaine October 17, 2012 (10:15 pm)

    It doesn’t look that much different from other elementary school buildings in Seattle School District… so many of them are old and falling apart… not pleasant to be in for kids or teachers.

  • Rumbles October 18, 2012 (4:37 am)

    Yet another vivid example of Seattle School District’s managerial ineptitude!

  • Leslie October 18, 2012 (5:48 am)

    Michael DeBell’s timing is odd ….. Did he not have time before or he needed a photo op? Time for him to go.

    • WSB October 18, 2012 (6:28 am)

      Leslie, I don’t know about the timing overall, but re: the photo op, it was not a photo op. There actually hadn’t been any media scheduled or invited; I happened to hear about it the day before, asked if I could tag along – since I’d been seeking a tour anyway – was told no, then a parent rep called me at the last minute yesterday morning and said it would be OK after all, so I rushed over. No other media was there; the Times had toured the day before (incorporated into their overall BEX story published last night) with the principal and parent reps. – TR

  • westello October 18, 2012 (7:56 am)

    Do understand that if I-1240 DOES pass, all bets are off on BEX money and how it is spent.

    Under 1240, there are new charters and conversion charters. Conversion charters, as part of their application, can submit a petition, signed by the majority of either parents OR teachers at ANY existing school, failing or not. If their application is approved, the charter takes over the school, building and all.

    Conversion charters get their share of any levy money, operations AND capital, from the moment they open.

    That means that if 1240 passes and BEX passes, that any conversion charter created in the next 4+years will get its “share” of BEX money.

    So you do the math – if 2-3 (more) SPS schools got converted, you would take the number of SPS schools + conversion charters and divide into the (current) BEX amount of about $700M.

    That might lope off somewhere between $15-20M from BEX. That’s money that was designated to help an EXISTING school but now has to go to a charter school (whether their building has capital needs or not).

    One good reason to say NO to 1240,

  • BMW October 18, 2012 (8:34 am)

    And look at those asbestos covered pipes under the bathroom sinks!

  • No on I-1240 October 18, 2012 (10:16 am)

    Tracy, DeBell would NOT have gone there but for the pending Times article. That’s how he works. He manipulates the media for his own devices (i.e. he was behind ‘zine articles and Times editorials bemoaning supposed “micro-managing” board members)

    Anyone contemplating voting yes on I-1240 should realize that it is a gift of public funds to “non-profits” backed by for-profit companies. Charters fail for both academic and financial reasons, and they will place an even greater burden on our struggling schools.

    Separate the ineptitude of central administration from the care and hard work of staff and teachers in buildings. Although I am very unhappy with BEX IV in its present form, I would NEVER vote for charters.

  • Trying! October 18, 2012 (11:33 am)

    The school board has become imperialistic. They are condescending and impervious to the concerns of a large portion of their constituency. Apparently most states consider Charter schools an asset, only 4 states do not allow Charter schools.

  • Gabby October 18, 2012 (2:31 pm)

    I recently met a Morman millionaire while traveling in the Southwest. His business? “Real estate, and I own a chain of charter schools.”


    I decided to look into charter schools, since we don’t have them in Washington and I knew very little about them. I don’t like what I’ve learned so far at all.

    I won’t be voting for the initiative.

  • Gabby October 18, 2012 (8:56 pm)

    I don’t care what anyone says about how the new SODO stadium and it’s $200 million public investment is not taking money from schools or education. When I see a public school in this shape and then I see those two going on three huge sports stadiums lined up downtown, it’s obvious to me there’s a problem with our priorities as a city.

  • westello October 19, 2012 (9:08 am)

    Actually trying, 9 states don’t have charters. Keep in mind this about Washington State:

    – voters have said no to charters three times. It’s not like this has not been considered.

    – 44 states have an income tax. Washington State does not.

    – 42 states’ legislatures have issued statements against gay marriage. Washington State’s? Passed it.

    No matter how you feel about any of those issues and their votes, it points to a pattern. A pattern of independently-minded voters.

    Washington State has NEVER gone along just because other states were doing something.

    And so it is with 1240; I suspect Washington will keep its place as one of the nine who just say no.

    Gabby, I agree with you. The time and effort on the part of the City Council, the Mayor and the King County Council on an arena when there are so many other issues is troubling.

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