The Death and Life of A Great Neighborhood School

Larrabee School

by Wendy Scherrer

The Bellingham School Board voted 4-1 to close down Larrabee Elementary School, a small vibrant neighborhood school.

On Wednesday, May 8, over 100 parents, children, neighbors and friends held a rally on the front steps of Larrabee School to show their support for keeping this small neighborhood school open. From 5:30 – 8:30 pm, on the same night at the Larrabee school gym, the first and only public hearing was held on closure, as mandated by 28A.335.020, School closures — Policy of citizen involvement required.

The gym was packed with over 100 people. All of the speakers were in favor of keeping Larrabee open. Not one person spoke up who wanted the school to close.  Thirty-five people each spoke for three minutes in favor of keeping Larrabee open, including current and retired teachers from the Bellingham School District (BSD), professors from WWU, Happy Valley Neighborhood Association Board members, City Council members, and many Larrabee alumni, parents, grandparents, and children. Hundreds of pages of written testimony were submitted.

Less than 24 hours later on Thursday, May 9th, the School Board met at the school district’s Administration Building. BSD Superintendent Greg Baker and his team answered questions from School Board members. Dr. Scott Stockburger first made a motion to postpone a vote for closure of Larrabee School for six months, until after a fall school bond election was held in November. The motion was voted down and then a motion was made to adopt Resolution #10-13, Pertaining to the Closure of Larrabee Elementary School for K-5 Instructional Purposes.

After discussion, a 4-1 vote resulted in the closure of Larrabee School. Board members Kenneth Gass, Steven Smith, Kelly Bashaw, and Camille Hackler voted in favor to close down the school, with only Dr. Scott Stockburger voting against the closure.

After the hearing, Dr. Scott Stockburger said, “It’s evident the community is not on board with this, and I think we’ve got some work to do to get them on board,” he said. “I think we run a big risk of alienating that community.”

“I feel like they totally ignored the community,” Larrabee parent Michell Remley said. “They discounted us as emotional parents and we presented facts. We did our homework.”

Dr. Nicholas Zaferatos, Planning professor at WWU and former Chair of the Bellingham Planning Commission said after the vote to close Larrabee, “Despite everything done by the community, the dice were loaded, the community was co-opted. The district has gone corporate. No concern for community policy nor parent/community interests, just corporate models.”

Serious issues about this action by the Bellingham School Board and Superintendent to close Larrabee School include:

  1. No Transparent process for Closure of Larrabee — School district staff never gave a timeline to parents, teachers, and the public to explain when the Larrabee closure vote would occur.  The School District administrative staff knew what the plan was, but the public did not.
  2. Wrong RCW! Revised Code of Washington — RCW 28A.335.010 was cited for the resolution to close Larrabee in BDS Resolution 10-13. This is an incorrect Washington Code to close down a school. It relates to furnishing and insuring schools. RCW 28A.335.020 is the correct RCW.
    School District Did Not Comply with the Revised Code of Washington — RCW 36.70a.70 Comprehensive Plans and the Bellingham Comprehensive Plan:  Policy VB 35 states: Neighborhood schools in developed areas are retained and new schools are located consistent with the City’s commitment to infill and compact growth.
    The vote to close Larrabee School ignores the Bellingham Comprehensive Plan, adopted by City Council in 2006. This plan was developed under WA State requirement RCW 36.70a.70, with wide public input through collaborative and inclusive meetings. It is our community-wide vision. Thousands of hours and thousands of dollars were spent on this process and on the Happy Valley Neighborhood Plan, adopted by City Council.  The problem is that the Bellingham School District staff and the City of Bellingham staff and elected officials do not coordinate on planning. They are two different political groups that work apart. School district staff did not include neighborhood planners, architects and city staff in the Facilities Planning Task Force. School facility planning and Bellingham community planning are in two different worlds. School district staff did not comply with nor incorporate Bellingham Comprehensive Plan goals and policies.
  3. School District Did Not Comply with the Happy Valley Neighborhood Plan — The vote to close Larrabee School ignores the Happy Valley Neighborhood Plan (2011), with HV GOAL-4: Urge the School District to keep neighborhood schools open. Bellingham School District staff did not invite nor include any neighborhood associations in the Facilities Planning Task Force. School district staff were unaware of and had not read the plan.
  4. Trend to End Small Neighborhood Schools — The current Bellingham public school leadership movement rejects the idea of small neighborhood schools.  Dr. Baker stated at the May 9th school board meeting that the new model for schools is 400 students and five acres. It rejects a model of smaller schools serving families within our existing neighborhoods.
  5. Disconnect between City of Bellingham, Bellingham School District, and Community — There is an apparent disconnect with the school facilities planning process and the movement toward progressive urban smart-growth principles that we are trying to implement in Bellingham. This trend in Washington State destroys neighborhoods and communities. State funding drives districts to big parcels, but is a suburban model rather than an urban model and is in absolute contradiction with current urban planning principles. School district planning ignores the external costs to the neighborhoods.

What can we do to protect our neighborhood schools? It is now incumbent upon the City of Bellingham to review and revise its published comprehensive plans. It is important to vote in and vote out school board members who do not understand how communities thrive. Decide whether to work for or against school bonds.  It is imperative for the School District staff and board, and City of Bellingham staff to work in a more collaborative manner to make decisions on our neighborhood schools.

And what about Columbia, Parkview, Lowell Elementary schools, what is the future of these neighborhood schools? How much do we value our older neighborhood schools? The Bellingham School District will have a huge school bond for approval on the ballot this November. Will voters support it, after the school district leadership did not support the community in what was perceived to be a unfair, non-collaborative process? Why they didn’t they work with us in a collaborative way to address problems about Larrabee?

Larrabee is an old school, but when you observe the school today, you find lively, engaged children who are learning academically and growing emotionally and socially. You find parents who are deeply committed to the school and who value its program greatly. You find teachers and a principal who choose to work there. The principal and all the teachers know all the children—and all the parents. The parents know each other, and the school functions as a community rather than as a bureaucracy. Indeed you find a school that just three years ago received a $1.5 million overhaul from the same school board. There has been significant public and private investment in this school in the last 10 years, and it was evidenced by the 100 yard signs that were up in May before the hearing that says it all, “We Love Larrabee.”

Larrabee parents and Happy Valley neighbors are sad, angry, in grief and shock that the beautiful neighborhood school is being closed down.  A former Bellingham School District teacher, whose two daughters attended Larrabee, said, “I never thought I’d see the day that I did not vote to support educational levies and bonds; however, I will not support anything they put up.”

In Jane Jacobs book, “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she wrote: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” And “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”

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