When voters repeatedly reject school construction bonds during a period of historic population growth, something has to give.
In Bethel, that has meant students have been increasingly squeezed out of school buildings and into portable classrooms. The district now uses 201 portable classrooms, and more will undoubtedly be needed if our upcoming bond fails.
Bethel’s student population has grown over 2,000 students since its last new schools were opened in 2009. We’ve added 717 new students in the past two years alone, and demographic projections indicate that another 3,000 students will arrive in the next 10 years
The district’s history with bonds has not been stellar, to say the least. Bethel voters have rejected 17 of the last 21 school bonds dating back to 1980. That includes four bond failures in just the last two years.
Our November bond fell just 307 votes shy of the required 60% supermajority needed to pass
Without the benefit of new and expanded schools, district leaders have been forced to rely on more and more portables to house the ever-growing student population. And while portable classrooms are certainly less expensive than building new schools, they aren’t exactly cheap.
A double portable that houses two full classrooms costs the district roughly $600,0000. That money includes the cost of manufacturing the structure, as well as the costs associated with siting and installing it, plus building out the technological aspects of the classrooms.
“There’s the preparation of the site, and then of course the different systems that have to go out to the buildings, whether that’s electrical or technology or the alarm system,” said Superintendent Tom Seigel. “It’s just very, very expensive to install portables now.”
Portable classrooms aren’t cheap, but Cathie Carlson, Bethel’s Director of Construction and Planning, says much of that price tag is out of the district’s hands.
“You certainly can’t compare building under the Public Works regulations to the cost of your own home. We have to pay prevailing wages, we have to follow all the rules that apply to Public Works, which is considerably different from the private sector,” said Bethel School Board member Brenda Rogers.
Bringing more students into portable classrooms isn’t anyone’s first choice, but for the time being it is our best option. Given that fact, district leaders have worked hard to make the portables as safe and comfortable as possible.
“The portables now have all the same technology as the classrooms inside the building. We want to make those learning environments equal for the students,” said Seigel.
While comfort and technology are important in portables, nothing is more important than student safety. With that in mind, the district has added a variety of safety features to the structures, including installing view holes in all classrooms that let teachers see who is at the door before opening it.
Bethel voters will once again get a chance to vote on a school construction bond this February. The February bond is very similar to the bond voters saw in November. There are a few small changes based on community feedback, but the cost is the same. If approved, the bond would build three brand new schools, including a brand new Bethel High School. It would also renovate and expand six of our other schools, including a new wing on Graham-Kapowsin High School.
Portable classrooms will not go away even if voters pass the bond, but having new and expanded schools will drastically reduce the need for them. If the bond fails, even more students will more likely be moved to portables. But simply adding more portables won’t solve the problem of overcrowding.
Bethel has only so much physical space to put portable classrooms, and we’re quickly reaching that limit.
More information about Bethel’s February bond can be found at bethelsd.org/bond.