Like many rural schools built during the Depression era, Harrah Elementary in the tiny Mt. Adams School District was always more Doreatha Lang shabby than art deco chic. As decades passed, so, too, did the usefulness of the building, though generations of students admirably pressed on and endured the crumbling classrooms, lately getting some instruction in a musty bus barn and portables with iffy heating.
But then, what option did the district have?
Mt. Adams’ enrollment fluctuates but never rises to four figures and, with much of its land tax-exempted because it falls on the Yakama reservation, there’s little tax base (1,894 registered voters, at last count), so passing a construction bond or levy wouldn’t raise enough funds if it passed, which it never did.
Grim, folks. Grim as “The Grapes of Wrath,” released a scant two years after Harrah Elementary’s construction in 1937.
Yet, there is celebration in this tight-knit community southwest of Yakima. Through state funds from the School Construction Assistance Program, as well as some clever financial finagling by capital budget whiz Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, Harrah has scrimped and saved and checked under the couch cushions and come up with the $27 million needed to break ground on a new facility that will be more conducive to learning and less so to hypothermia in winter months.
So, a happy ending, right?
In a way. But Honeyford’s crafty Ways & Means Committee maneuvering that last year enabled Mt. Adams and three other small, rural districts proceed with construction was merely a one-off.
Now comes the hard work of passing legislation that will ensure that districts with little tax base and lots of abject poverty — whose chances of reaching a 60-percent “yes” vote on bond measures seem as likely as the Sonics returning to Seattle — will be able to replace dilapidated structures and give students the resources they deserve.
Honeyford is the lead sponsor on SB 5572, which he dubs the Small Rural Schools bill. It would provide school construction assistance and “modernization” grants for school districts with fewer than 1,000 students and little in the way of a tax base to serve as a potential funding source to provide such luxuries as running water, restrooms and insulation. Because small districts —and those on tribal land — have trouble enough attracting faculty, much less dedicated grant writers, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction will be called upon to assist in the application process. Sounds great. Sounds eminently fair. But does it have a chance to pass both the Senate and House? Last year, a similar bill introduced by Honeyford died in the House, and both bodies are loath to lower the threshold when it comes to bonds, levies and grants for construction.
Just this week, the Senate voted down a bill that would have lowered the bond bar and allow a simple majority of voters to pass school bonds. Because it would have changed the state Constitution, it required a two-thirds passage. And Republicans blocked it, including the five sponsoring Honeyford’s bill — Honeyford included.
The reason SB 5572 has a fighting chance is that Honeyford and co-sponsors, which include Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, have significantly narrowed the scope and zeroed in on making funding easier for truly needy districts, not wealthier ones in large cities that often seem to be serial bond-seekers. It’s supported by the Washington Association of School Administers, the Washington State PTA and was given a thumb’s up last winter by the Legislature’s Joint Task Force on Improving State Funding for School Construction.
Districts would face a high bar, beyond the enrollment number, to meet the standard for rural grants.
Priority would go to districts with requests that, the bill states, “achieve the greatest improvement of school facilities” in district and state-tribal compact schools “for projects that are likely to improve student health, safety, and academic performance for the largest number of students.” Districts and the OSPI also must indicate how achievement measures will be evaluated. On the money end, a rural district would not have to meet the School Construction Assistance Program requirement that a project’s cost be less than 40 percent of the estimated replacement value of the facility. Also, a district also must show proof it has sufficient funds acquired locally, through other grants or donations, to finish the project.
As Honeyford recently told a Herald-Republic reporter, “I wanted a program that would not just be an automatic ‘Hey, go out there and beat the bond program and get some money.’”
Truth is, rural school districts such as Mt. Adams will never beat able to pass school bonds, especially if the threshold remains at 60 percent. SB 5572 takes steps to give districts hope they can put the days of holding classes in barns, gyms and portables behind them.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis