by Marcus Harrison Green
Rainier Beach high school students have a simple message for the Seattle Public Schools Board: “Fix our school!”
On Wednesday, nearly a dozen Rainier Beach students traveled to the John Stanford Center in the SODO district to give public testimony at a third successive school board meeting. They demanded long-promised renovations for their school.The school’s building has not received any major upgrades in nearly two decades, despite initially being scheduled for maintenance as a part of two tax levies that allocated funds for remodeling.
“We will be coming to every school meeting until we’re made a priority,” said Rainier Beach sophomore Saido Nor. “We live the most diverse area in the city. Twice we’ve asked for renovations, and twice we’ve been denied.”
Nor’s comments referenced Rainier Beach’s initial inclusion in a series of Building Excellence Capital Levies, which funded new school construction and upgrades for aging school facilities.
Beach was originally slated to receive renovations upon the passage of the first levy in 1998, known as BEX I, but no building improvement ever materialized.
The South Seattle high school was again set to be renovated after 2012’s BEX III passed. But the renovations did not occur.
All in all, Seattle voters have passed 4 different public school building improvement levies in the span of 19 years, including the $694.9 million BEX IV passed by voters in 2013.
The students said they were puzzled by the lack of renovations, as they provided school board members with a photo packet displaying decrepit walls, missing ceiling tiles, and leaky pipes, and alleged their school has been the victim of a “bait-and-switch.”
“We have pipes that say contain asbestos… Other schools, like Garfield, have gotten renovations. We just want the same thing,” said Gian Rosaria, a sophomore at the school.
Concern over the state of the Rainier Beach High buildings is nothing new, according to alumni who attended the meeting.
“I don’t think any other school was ever named on the list [for renovations] and continued to be bypassed like Beach,” said Tammy Nguyen, who graduated from Rainier Beach in 2000. Her daughter, student Tuyet-Nhi Vo, spoke during the public testimony.
Nguyen said the condition of the high school’s building has changed little since her time as a student there.
The school board has currently provided no explanation as to why Rainier Beach High School was removed from both BEX 1 and BEX III after the two levies passed.
Some school board members are a bit perplexed as to why scheduled renovations at Rainier Beach weren’t carried out.
“I confess to not having the full history of the renovations and past promises made/kept/not kept at Rainier Beach,” Richard Burke, a board director for Seattle Public School’s District 2, said in an email to the Emerald.
Burke said SPS has a fairly “extensive building maintenance backlog” that the school district has struggled to keep up with. He was the only board member to meet with the students directly after their public testimony on Wednesday, offering them his card and expressing a willingness to work with Betty Patu, the school board director whose territory includes much of South Seattle, in ensuring Rainier Beach High School is placed on the proposed BEX V levy in 2019.
Advocating for inclusion in that levy is the best thing to do going forward, according to school board member Stephen Blanford.
“The major renovation [the students] seek can happen but will need to be placed on the 2019 capital levy by the board, which will then go to voters in November of that year,” Blanford said in a statement to the Emerald.
Blanford, who applauded the student advocates, says it is going to take continued pressure from current and future students to ensure “the board does the right thing.”
That won’t be a problem, the students promised.
“We’re going to be working to make sure that every student and parent around Rainier Beach knows to come and support our school. We need their support at every single meeting so the school board knows we’re serious,” said Diego Reyes-Foster, another Rainier Beach student.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000