Many suburban school districts around Seattle, children crowding into their classrooms, can’t get a bond or a levy past voters. That’s put pressure on schools to find other, less than ideal solutions.
It’s the end of the school day at Shaw Road Elementary in Puyallup. The pavement out in front of the school is swarming with students. Parents pull up to pick up their children. A school safety monitor makes sure the kids don’t run out in front of cars.
"It’s organized chaos, is what it is," says Brian Fox, a spokesperson for the Puyallup School District. He smiles as the kids chase each other around noisily on the wide sidewalk. "It is great noise. It's happy noise. It's good stuff, but there's just so much of it. There's an overcrowding in this area that is going to only continue for the next three to five years."
In the next five years, the Puyallup school district expects 1,600 new students. But there aren’t enough schools for all those kids, and for the last 11 years, the district hasn’t been able to pass a bond that would pay for new schools.
So the district has been throwing up portables – it's got 232 now, to be precise. Fox says portables cause lots of problems, because they add kids but not other things kids need, like bathrooms, libraries and gyms. Those limited resources become increasingly strained as portables grow on the school grounds like weeds.
They also use a lot more energy, with four outside walls instead of one or two.
"To solve the problem by adding more portables is not really our first choice. We already have more than enough. But people are moving in. So we have to put them somewhere."
Young couples in their child-bearing years are moving in to developments all around Puyallup.
Windermere Realtor Cathy Morris is showing off a 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house in a housing development called Silver Creek. List price: $300,000. That’s about half the price of a house in some Seattle neighborhoods. "Here we have a huge walk-in closet," she says.
This neighborhood had a lot of foreclosures during the financial crisis. But that’s all in the past. A builder bought up the remaining vacant lots here and has been throwing up houses like this one.
Morris says most of her buyers are couples in their early 30s. They have student debt and commute to jobs in Seattle on the Sounder commuter train.
"A lot of the people have the high hopes of wanting to stay in the city to be closer to their job," she says. "But at the end of the day just you have to make decisions."
That could mean moving out a little bit farther for affordable housing.
The population is growing all over the country as the grandchildren of the baby boom enter kindergarten. It’s one of the reasons schools are so crowded.
The tricky thing is to predict where those children will go to school. That’s the job of Les Kendrick, the demographer for many school districts, including Puyallup.
Kendrick says predicting that number of future students is much more complicated than walking through neighborhoods and counting the number of strollers and preschools. For example, many of those preschoolers seen in strollers on the streets of Seattle might not live in Seattle by the time they reach school age.
"If people start making different choices, they decide, 'Oh, I don't want to live in the city, I want to move to a bigger home in the suburbs.'" Kendrick says. "They might be there (in Seattle) when their kids are preschool age and then move out years later."
It's an old story: Grow up, have kids and move to the suburbs. With all the talk of hot housing markets in Seattle, it's tempting to think that old dream had been abandoned – traded in for a new dream of living in the city. But four-bedroom houses are rare in Seattle, and affordable four bedrooms even more so. Puyallup may be Plan B for many of these young families, but it's a plan many seem happy to accept.
Based on past history in Puyallup's South Hill neighborhood (where the Silver Creek development is located), Kendrick predicts 75 percent of new homes will produce a kindergartner for the district.
But the problem is not limited to Puyallup and Pierce County. Many districts in King County face similar overcrowding.
At two schools in Burien, children must eat lunch in five shifts. In Redmond and Kirkland, some students were asked to switch schools. Communities where bond measures have failed again and again are the hardest hit by overcrowding. School officials there have grown weary of asking local taxpayers to pay for new schools so they don’t have to rely on portables.
"I think that we need, quite frankly, to quit asking our local taxpayers to pay that money," says Puyallup School District’s Brian Fox. "Instead, it should be the responsibility of the state."
The Washington State Supreme Court shares that conclusion. In 2012, the court ordered the state to spend billions of dollars more on education. The money would pay for raising salaries, hiring staff and building new classrooms.
The state has until 2018 to reverse decades of unconstitutional underfunding. The court demanded the state Legislature demonstrate progress toward that goal before the end of the 2015 legislative session.