The City of Bellingham, the Whatcom County government, and Western Washington University all require that their capital projects be built to meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards for green building in their construction projects. Furthermore, all of Washington State's capital projects have been required to be built to attain at least LEED Silver, or higher, since 2005 -- if you wonder how Washington's Dept. of Corrections came to have 40 LEED-certified buildings, this legislation is why.
LEED is the green standard for buildings and facilities of all sorts because, unlike the weaker Washington State Schools Protocol (WSSP) that Bellingham Public Schools uses, it requires third-party verification and certification to ensure that the building materials and efficiency targets are met.
LEED is more rigorous and, yes, a bit more expensive. But the results are verifiable and the long-term benefits to both the environment and to taxpayers are more assured.
I don't begrudge the School District for their "green building" efforts: They clearly have improved efficiency and design over the past decade.
But I would posit to voters that some projects BPS pursues would not be considered remotely sustainable and, due to the process and criteria LEED asks builders to ponder, they may have even been rejected outright. The Bus Barn, for example, would likely fail for being located entirely within the Critical Areas Ordinance riparian buffer zone of Whatcom Creek.
Committing to LEED would change the dialogue during the planning and design phase of projects while also providing the fringe benefit of making every school a living laboratory for the types of green building technology that we know our nation, and these students, will need to deploy in the future. Instead of us scraping around for after-the-fact donations of solar panels, as is true for the recently-built $105 million Sehome High School, it is very likely the panels would just automatically be there as a component of LEED.
Students in every school could learn about on-site stormwater management, perhaps through seeing a vegetated roof or raingarden displayed as living laboratories. Or students could see on-campus wind, solar, or energy efficient heating technology in action, perhaps through digital readouts available for classes to monitor or for whoever is curious. Or, since LEED typically gives credits for educational aspects of its protocols, perhaps a few plaques could be mounted in our schools denoting why the cabinets used or the paints selected are free from formaldyhyde or other volatile organic compounds. These are all options strongly encouraged by LEED, if not required.
Having built or project managed several LEED-certified projects myself, I see this program as being the stronger option given that the state requires school districts to pick either LEED or the WSSP protocol.
If elected, I would endeavor to press the School District to increase their efforts in sustainability and stewardship on all of their campuses, and to make green building techniques and technologies an ingrained part of student's learning experience.
As for converting to an electric bus fleet, this seems a no-brainer; Electric school buses are twice as expensive as their diesel counterparts, but, since they have far less demanding routes and miles, they currently appear to be only about a quarter the cost of the electric versions used by municipal fleets like the Whatcom Transit Authority. A diesel school bus costs about $115,000 whereas an electric version is currently more like $250,00.
It was frustrating to many of us involved in the fight to get the Bus Barn moved when we realized that Bellingham Public Schools appears to have zero long-term strategy for converting to electric buses.
Instead they have doubled-down on diesel by investing your tax dollars into a brand-new facility, directly adjacent to Whatcom Creek, that is entirely devoted to technology we should be fleeing from.
If elected, I would want to make an electric fleet an option for voters on the next bond. We missed opportunities to save money and do this already, as evidenced by the $12 million overage that the district decided we would pay, in the next bond, for building the Taj Mahal of all High Schools at Sehome High.
I think we deserve better priorities, as taxpayers, and -- I'm just guessing here -- I'd wager that students marching in the streets demanding action on the climate crisis are in full agreement.
"Most of the project will be completed using existing resources from the facilities bond approved in 2013. However, due to new code requirements, site development costs and construction cost escalation since original estimates were developed in 2012, about $12 million will be added to the next bond to finish Sehome’s facility, fields and grounds." -- Sehome High School Q and A, BPS Website
LEED and public schools, everywhere except Bellingham:
From the below attached article: "(Governor Ralph) Northam said replacing 75 buses* with all-electric school buses would result in a lifetime savings of 670,000 pounds nitrogen oxide, about 41,000 pounds of particulate matter population, and 36 million pounds of greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions. This is equivalent to removing 3,500 cars from the road or saving 1.6 million gallons of diesel. Public school districts can be reimbursed up to $265,000 for the purchase of an all-electric school bus, including charging infrastructure."
(* Note: According to Bellingham Public Schools their current fleet is "more than 70 buses" -- so these numbers for emissions should be considered roughly equivalent to what is billowing over Whatcom Creek and into the York Neighborhood every morning as our local fleet warms up.)
Bellingham Public Schools hires contractors to spray thousands of linear feet of school campuses with Monsanto's product, "RoundUp Pro." They do this yearly, apparently, and I'm awaiting further information through public document requests to get a tally on exactly how much of this potent herbicide is being sprayed (see the attached documents for 2017-2018 totals.) Banned in several nations and local municipalities, I feel that at a minimum this product has no business being anywhere near children.
Beyond that, as there will still be grounds maintenance and weeds to be dealt with, a solution I would propose for the long-term is to get students engaged with identifying and removing invasive and pest species: Let the students themselves take on stewardship of the school campuses. This could be similar to the very popular programs done in collaboration with Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association whereby students remove blackberries and plant native species to restore streams. It could be a programmatic extension of biology classes, or the gardening program that Common Threads Farm has established with the District, or just a school-wide focus as part of Earth Day. There are creative options here that need to be explored.
Paying Monsanto and subcontractors to spray toxic substances on school campuses, where children play and spend a huge amount of their time, needs to be revisited both as a safeguard to their health and as a courtesy to taxpayers in Bellingham who are aware of the controversies and costs -- ecologically and economically -- surrounding these plant-killing products.
It is a fair critique to observe that I am, as a School Board Director Candidate, pretty lopsided in my fixation with environmental issues. Where are the kids in all this, Alex?!
I don't have much reason to deviate from the "environmental" theme (other than to gratuitously pander to parents and voters) for a simple reason: For the most part, after a year of observing and obsessing over this school district, they really don't seem to have a huge list of glaring faults. Other than the massive flaws related to sustainability and stewardship -- both of the environment and of taxpayer dollars -- Bellingham Public Schools (BPS) seems to be doing pretty decent work.
But the news today, September 19, 2019, has slammed really hard into one of the non-environmental issues that I have been deeply concerned about and aware of since even before I decided to run. Bellingham's school district made national headlines yesterday because, metaphorically and literally, they were relegating special needs kids to the crapper.
Many of us have abundant good reasons to be eager to see BPS, and all of society for that matter, shift to a deeply trauma-informed dialogue. If you don't fully understand how trauma works in the mind and body, if you only have Hollywood interpretations of PTSD, then take some time to research and understand the topic a bit deeper. It is both fascinating, as a psychological and physical adaptation to stressful events, and also horrifying for how it wreaks its long-term symptoms and destruction upon sufferers of the malady, upon their family, friends, classmates, and teachers. I believe trauma is epidemic in our culture right now. And the data seems to confirm that. We'd do well, therefore, to load as many resources as we can to get ahead of it. And especially where it matters most, in young minds and bodies, where, if it is noticed and addressed appropriately and early enough, help can literally save lives.
I know that autism isn't the same as PTSD. I'm being intentionally sporadic here just to introduce people to the broader topics of what educators are dealing with nowadays. Because, very often, it is everything all at once.
"I've had kids on my caseload with all those diagnoses," a former school district employee told me, "e.g., selective mute from trauma, ranging to kids with straight articulation disorders (they can't say "r") who are greatly impacted by trauma. You need to have skills in order to be able to work with those kids, for sure. But yes -- autism, special needs, trauma, we see them all."
And they see them all because, by law, they have to: "Approximately 143,000 eligible students in Washington state receive special education and related services. OSPI fulfills the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which ensures all children with disabilities have access to a free appropriate public education."
OSPI, in this case, is the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. IDEA, in its first form, was passed by legislature in 1975, but with many amendments since. In the language of school districts and unions there is a baffling miasma of acronyms. I have read them and feel reasonably sure I understand them.
I will spare you as much as I can by just noting that "paraeducators" are the front line in dealing with special circumstances and needs of students. They are trained for a range of things, but some specialize in autism, speech disorders, trauma, and a full range of physical needs for students who, without their help, would otherwise not be able to attend schools at all. Wikipedia's definition clarifies the huge spectrum of jobs that might be expected of a paraeducator:
"Many teacher assistants (paraprofessionals) work primarily or exclusively with students who have special educational needs. Their duties vary according to the needs of the student, and may include physical care for students who are unable to care for themselves (such as feeding, lifting, moving, or cleaning), behavioral management, or academic assistance.
"Some paraprofessionals don't work with the school directly, rather the school district, mental health agencies, early childhood programs or transitional life agencies after a student graduates. Paraprofessionals can work in other programs that the school district provide, such as school aged childcare and recess/ lunch duties. This links the paraprofessional to the students, but not the teacher or schools itself.
"The role of the paraprofessional educator is constantly evolving. Today, more than ever, paraprofessionals are teaching lessons, working with small groups for remediation, leading extracurricular clubs/sports and are no longer simply the "teacher's aide" of the past."
I attended a lot of School Board meetings last year, but it seemed very clear to me, from listening to the powerful testimonials there, that the events at Whatcom Middle School yesterday, in some form or another, were bound to happen.
While it is horrifying and sad that Bellingham is in the spotlight, I think it is important, also, to acknowledge that this is a national crisis impacting our public school systems: Paraeducators need to be supported and they need to be paid appropriately. And we need more of them.
I have my own story for why these particular subjects interest me.
But they don't matter that much. By the time kids are found being relegated to use toilets as desks, we all start to have a stake in this.
Suffice it to say that if I can muster bottomless energy to care deeply about some fish and trees missing from a creek, I for damn sure can have empathy for the bind that schools, paraeducators, parents, and especially these special needs students are in.
We have to do better than this.
OFFICIAL MINUTES OF THE REGULAR BOARD MEETING BELLINGHAM SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF DIRECTORS, October 17, 2018 -- Audience (Public Comment Period)
OFFICIAL MINUTES OF THE REGULAR BOARD MEETING, BELLINGHAM SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF DIRECTORS, November 7, 2018 -- Audience (Public Comments):
Q: What impact will this (Bus Barn) project have on the creek?
"The renovation of the existing building will have no impact on the adjacent creek. The scope of this project includes upgrading oil/water separators; that system connects to the sanitary sewer, not the storm sewer, to ensure nothing makes its way into the creek. In addition, none of the water collected on site goes into the storm sewer (or into the creek); it goes into the sanitary sewer."
The above was taken from the BPS Website's "Transportation Garage FAQ" page.
Unfortunately, this statement of theirs is massively disingenuous. The Board and the administration know this, but strenuously avoided admitting it.
As part of my year-long effort to get the School District to move their bus fleet, I collected several documents and testimonials that clearly agree with the baseline fact that this entire site -- the bad location BPS has committed to for what might be another 63 years -- is disastrously inappropriate and forecloses on any prospect at all to restore the habitat of Bellingham's most iconic and central salmon-bearing creek.
ReSources for Sustainable Communities, the York Neighborhood Association, Bellingham Public Works Department, the Sierra Club of Whatcom County, the unanimous membership of the Bellingham Greenways Advisory Committee, Water Resource Inventory Area 1, and several current, former, and prospective elected officials all agreed with my general assessment: These buses must move.
The administration and the Board at BPS, rather than address the problem with creativity and urgency, instead chose to entrench their commitment to this site through responses (as above) that clearly aimed to avoid the central conflict that this community has been protesting against for over a decade: These buses must move: They force these four acres of Whatcom Creek to be nothing more than a blighted hellscape of semi-industrial use: There is ZERO functioning riparian habitat here for nearly 1,000 linear feet: The entirety of the site sits within the buffer described by the 2013 Bellingham Critical Areas Ordinance: It violates every guiding principle of the Shoreline Master Plan, the State's orca and salmon legislation passed last year, and would not remotely be considered sustainable or acceptable if any private entity were to propose building such a facility today, now, when we know so much more about salmon and stream habitat than we did back in 1956.
I got a lot of grief from people in Bellingham for describing this project as, "an environmental hate-crime being inflicted upon this community."
These are taxpayer dollars, however, and elected officials making decisions about continuing a flatly egregious abuse of natural resources -- a salmon creek in the era of climate crisis -- and every inch of this project is on land that the public owns.
My other statements are more demure and certainly I never voiced such foamy frustration while addressing the School Board or City Council on repeated occasions.
This, for example, is what I am also on record as saying to those elected representatives: "From the curb-cut to the creek there is a downward slope of 10 feet to the creek. Every rain event washes across hard-packed gravel and flows unimpeded to the creek as Non-Pointsource Pollution -- every goober of oil, brake fluid, tire dust, and antifreeze that drips off of more than 70 diesel buses has unimpeded gravitational flow toward salmon habitat. There is nothing there, by the way, aside from rocks and blackberries and a few trees that have found a foothold: the Gabbion blocks, wire mesh cages filled with imported rocks and installed by Natural Resources Department decades ago, are spalling, failing, and this FEMA-regulated floodplain is not available for restoration due to the buses being a mere 20-40 feet away from the creek's shoreline. There is zero stormwater mitigation infrastructure on this site at the fence line, a fact I confirmed with the Planning Department. The only small gutter that is 'connected to the sewer system' is, in fact, the one allowed to be installed at the concrete apron of the Bus Barn structure. Everything else, during any rain event, washes off of hard-packed gravel and into the creek. Numerous local agencies, local elected officials not tied to the School District, community members, activists, and organized non-profit groups have acknowledged that this is, in general or in specifics, exactly the problem with this site: The buses must move or no habitat restoration is remotely possible. Nobody does this to creeks anymore, not in 2019 and not with what we know, now, about salmon habitat."
If elected, I intend to be a voice for the most marginalized and abused constituency in the Bellingham community. If people are offended by how I have occasionally expressed my frustration at this School District for this dangerously imbecilic waste of $2.8 million dollars to perpetuate abuse against salmon and habitat, then please understand that I see protecting the environment as part and parcel of the commitment that we should be making to preserve a future for Bellingham's children.
There's no good excuse, at all, for why Bellingham Public Schools is building a new facility in this horrible location. If they really want to prove they care for children, a good start would be to protect the world they are about to inherit from us.
Video produced by Whatcom Creek Alliance:
Why is BPS building a multi-million dollar facility in Sedro Woolley, in the watershed for Bellingham's drinking water supply, that will require students to spend an hour in buses in order to experience a three-hour field-trip? This seems bizarre to me.
The "Gordon L. Carter Environmental Education Center," located just above the shores of the southernmost end of Lake Whatcom, is a good idea in a bad location. The costs for transportation, for staff time, for construction of the project, and for long-term maintenance of a facility that is two zip codes away appears to have been totally overlooked. Consideration for the community goal of protecting Lake Whatcom, which local taxpayers have spent about $100 million on so far, including nearly $30 million just buying properties so they will never be developed, wasn't remotely part of the decision-making process: When I contacted the City's Watershed Advisory Board, they'd heard nothing of the project. Likewise with Western Washington University's Institute for Watershed Studies. There was, apparently, zero communication with the City of Bellingham on the commitment to build what the School District describes as a "large-group" facility designed for "year-round use."
A far better site, in my view, is less than a quarter mile away from Fairhaven Middle School in the vast, publicly-owned acreage of the Chuckanut Community Forest Park District (CCFPD). By using this forest, which already has unique covenants in its conservation easement that encourage use for "scientific and educational purposes," the School District could have formed some much-needed collaboration and communication with the City of Bellingham.
I've no illusion that my election to the Board would change anything about this project in the watershed. This is because anything funded through a School Bond, no matter how ill-conceived, no matter whether voters understood what the projects are or not, is nonetheless considered a sacred decree from God: IT MUST AND WILL GET BUILT, no matter what.
I absolutely love the idea of the district having a dedicated environmental education facility. But, again, this location is just maximally bizarre and inefficient and, most importantly, it is not "environmentally friendly" or sustainable to have two or more buses, plus staff vehicles, driving an hour round-trip into and out of the Lake Whatcom watershed ... forever.
Because of my decades of being engaged with multiple aspects of this community, when I saw this Gordon Carter project idea I almost immediately saw both the problem and the solution: we could have created synergy with the District and the City, pooled funds and design strategies that could have benefitted the whole community here, and provided a truly year-round, multi-use, environmental education facility mere skipping distance from Fairhaven Middle School at the CCFPD.
If elected, I would strive to be vigilant and try to solve these holistic riddles early enough for it to matter.
Speaking of riddles, here are some notes apparently taken during the district's first "Environmental Education Site" committee meeting on October 22, 2014. They seem to have observed many of the problems I listed above, but plowed forward undeterred. Construction is set for Fall, 2019.
"(We) then spent some time thinking about what the barriers are, what would stop us from realizing these visions (for the environmental education site), and also what it would take to address these obstacles. The share out included:
"The City’s Property Acquisition Program in the Lake Whatcom watershed purchases property to prevent development around our drinking water source and protect carbon-rich forests."
-- pg. 21, City of Bellingham Climate Protection Action Plan, 2018 Update
I testified during public comment periods over a dozen times last year, before City Council and the Bellingham School Board, to air my concerns and grievances regarding the Bus Barn proposal.
What was revealed to me in that effort was that there is a bottomless ritual of bureacratic evangelism at play whereby, given really valid inputs from the community, either of these local governments could nonetheless punt and deflect, prevaricate, send the question into administrative rabbit holes, and otherwise stovepipe themselves into dysfunctional paralysis.
Absolutely nothing at all was done to encourage the school district to move their buses.
So they didn't.
Now, with remodeling underway, they will be parked on top of Whatcom Creek for generations.
There is a reason I am the third member of the Greenways Advisory Committee (GAC) to attempt to earn a seat on the School Board. A large part of the motive comes from seeing, first hand, how poorly the City and the District actually communicate. During my two terms on the GAC it was a repeated theme (which included the Bus Barn) that the District and City were, rather than partners, more like competitive adversaries: We want trails and connections for safe walking and biking routes to schools? Good luck with that.
I believe a large part of this conundrum is that there currently is no reference whatsoever to the ideals of sustainability, stewardship, or any baseline environmental principles that are baked into Bellingham Public School's policy directives. Since the Board is based on the Carver Policy Governance protocols, this means there is no way to find fault with their "environmental policies" ... because there are none. There also, for that matter, are zero references to these environmental ideals anywhere in the much fussed-over document that BPS calls "The Bellingham Promise."
In an era where kids are skipping school to march in the streets as a way to express their anxiety over climate change, it seems fair to ask that this $100 million per-year public institution acknowledge their concerns with some basic policy directives.
It wouldn't be the whole answer, but I think it is clear that issues like routes to schools or building capital projects in bizarre locations would have a changed dialogue. And, yes, it should change the narrative with the City of Bellingham as well: The City, for example, has had a clear and long-term interest in protecting Whatcom Creek. If the School District had a similar interest, codified by the guidance of policy language, then the Bus Barn fiasco and many other environmental or logistical riddles might have been solved or averted.
During the Bus Barn debate their were several references made by City Council members that the City and the School District, "need to stay in their lanes" and not tell each other what to do. That's fine, as far as it goes. But, please, let's also notice that there's another metaphor here that impacts more than just these two local governments: They both need to at least "get on the same page" or a lot of opportunities for the larger Bellingham community are going to continue to be misread, ignored, or put forever on the shelf.
Lastly, I think the Board itself needs to acknowledge how impossible it is for the community to engage with them and, for that matter, vice-a-versa. There is language in the Board handbook that seems to ensure that Board Directors cannot express any opinion publicly, on social media or elsewhere, that might offend the president or superintendent. So they get elected, then disappear. They don't say anything and the public hears nothing. Then, magically, we get to vote on a School Bond. That, aside from a few "listening post" exercises, is the extent of the Board's engagement with the community, with parents, and kids.
If elected I would want to propose that filming Board meetings and putting them on-line, as the Port and City of Bellingham currently does, be added as a public benefit. That way at least the rest of us can share and debate what is going on in the School District, even if the Board chooses to stick with their code-of-silence policy.