Half of a gym is used for physical education class while the other serves as a makeshift lunch station at the Sultan Elementary School on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024 in Sultan, Washington. Students have to walk to the gym to pick up food and then eat in their classrooms. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Half of a gym is used for physical education class while the other serves as a makeshift lunch station at the Sultan Elementary School on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024 in Sultan, Washington. Students have to walk to the gym to pick up food and then eat in their classrooms. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

With overcrowded schools ‘falling apart,’ Sultan tries bond measure

A nearly $80 million bond, funded by property taxes, would build a new elementary school on Sultan Basin Road and fund more upgrades.

SULTAN — On a rainy day at Sultan Elementary School, the hot lunches turned cold.

Those meals were prepared in a tiny kitchen next to the gym. With no cafeteria seating, children at the school of nearly 700 students walked trays back to their classrooms to eat there. In the other half of the gym, separated by a curtain, a P.E. class went on, with about 15 kids shouting and giggling.

The only heat in the gym came from knee-high space heaters.

It was loud, crowded and cold.

Lunchtime is a window into a myriad of problems students deal with daily in the crowded school, where bathrooms are housed in trailers outdoors and whole grades attend class in 18 portables.

Sultan School District leaders believe a nearly $80 million bond measure on the ballot this month would solve problems in this school and others in the district. It will increase property taxes, making it a tough sell to some residents.

“This campus would be great if it was brand new,” Sultan Elementary Principal Aubrey Van Orden said. “It’s right in the center of town and could be something our community could be proud of — because you drive around and Sultan doesn’t have a lot of new stuff.”

Currently homeowners pay $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value in school-related taxes, including two levies. The capital levy expires in 2026. A third levy for technology, costing 25 cents per $1,000, begins in 2027. So if the bond passes, residents would pay a total rate of $3.52.

The bond would fund:

• A new $47 million elementary school on state land at Sultan Basin Road;

• A $29 million modernization project for Gold Bar Elementary;

• A project to convert the current Sultan Elementary School into a school for fifth and sixth graders;

• And $270,000 for demolition of the district’s old Transportation and Operations building.

Other school districts in Snohomish County, including Arlington, Edmonds, Stanwood-Camano and Lakewood, also have measures on the ballot in February.

Sultan school officials feel their facilities are in especially dire shape.

For the bond measure to pass, 60% of voters need to approve. Levy measures in Feburary 2022 and 2016 failed. However, voters passed two other levies in April 2022. Two other levies passed in 2018, as well.

Levies only need a simple majority. Bonds demand 60%.

Ballots are due Feb. 13.

‘We can’t put this off’

Part of the ceiling fell down during a recent parent-teacher conference at Sultan Elementary School, recalled Amy Smith, a teacher in the district for 29 years.

Workers came to fix the roof with plywood during school hours. It’s hard to teach when workers are hammering on the roof, Smith said.

“You take pride in where you work,” the principal said. “It’s hard to take pride in a rundown facility.”

The elementary school is “literally falling apart,” said Smith, who is part of the local teachers’ union leadership.

In a windstorm this school year, gutters fell down as parents dropped off their kids at school. No one was injured.

“I just can’t emphasize enough how we can’t put this off,” Smith said. “It’s not going to get any less expensive and the need is not going to go away.”

Many classrooms are in portables. Sultan Elementary has 18. Gold Bar Elementary has 12, Sultan High School has 15 and the middle school has five. Portables do not have running water. Classrooms inside the schools do.

“You have to walk out through the rain and mud to get to your classroom,” Van Orden said. “Before school, you’re standing out there in the rain because there’s no way for them to stay dry.”

One bathroom is inside the four main brick buildings on campus at Sultan Elementary School. Two outdoor trailers house the other restrooms.

The trailers have “a tank that only holds so much,” Van Orden said.

“They’re going to be great campers when they’re older,” he said.

Administrators say time is wasted going to and from the outdoor bathrooms, as well as time spent taking lunches back to the classroom. Van Orden calculated about seven full days of school time are wasted each year by the students moving around.

Staff have safety concerns, too. The school is fenced off, but kids are often walking to and from classrooms, the gym and the bathrooms.

“You worry about some behavior issues when those kids travel by themselves,” Smith said. “There’s always, you know, some kids that might get in trouble on the way there.”

Well over 200 kids were outside during a recess last month, supervised by two part-time employees.

The gym is too small to host some events. This year, due to fire code limits, a state-mandated reading festival will be held outside in summer.

‘They move here because it’s beautiful’

If the bond passes, the Sultan School District would qualify for $11 million from the state’s School Construction Assistance Program.

The amount of money schools receive is based on assessed property value in the district, said Heidi Burkart, a regional coordinator for school facilities and organization with the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Schools have to be over 30 years old to qualify for that funding.

Construction of the new elementary school would be on land owned by the state Department of Natural Resources. All signs point to the DNR board approving the land transfer Tuesday. The purchase is not conditional on the bond passing.

Currently, the land is forest, nestled behind new development projects.

At a community meeting, Superintendent Dan Chaplik noted the potential for some of the timber to be harvested commercially. The plat of land is about 49 acres, with 10 acres to be used for the school’s footprint, Chaplik said.

Snohomish County zoning maps show land designated as “Mineral Resource Lands” north of the plat, which some citizens have noted with concern. Public outcry over a potential gravel pit led to the project being shelved in 2001.

Chaplik was asked about that during a community meeting Thursday.

“I personally don’t think a mine is going to show up over there,” Chaplik said. “I think it would be harder today than it was 20 years ago, just because of all the homes that have gone up over there.”

Upscale townhouses in the Cobble Hill and Skyridge Estates neighborhoods are well maintained. Zillow lists home prices in the two neighborhoods at over $540,000. A few signs in support of the bond measure greet visitors to the new neighborhood.

‘It’s overdue’

The $3.52 per $1,000 figure is forecast to gradually decrease to $3.35 for the bond, which will be paid on for two decades, Chaplik said. Cost projections past 2025 are estimates — calculated in December for the district given the federal interest rate at the time. It represents the maximum that school officials expect the bond to cost.

“There is certainly the possibility that things will be even more favorable than we’re laying them out to be, but I can’t promise you any of that,” Chaplik said at the community meeting. “We’ve tried to set it up so that in the end, I come to you with a lower interest rate than we’ve actually advertised.”

Nobody showed up to speak against the bond measure at the meeting Thursday evening, though Sultan-centric social media pages have been abuzz with people for and against.

Since the pandemic and the rise of remote work, growth has caused traffic headaches on U.S. 2 and frustration to longtime residents.

The Sultan School District had 2,079 students enrolled for the 2023-24 school year.

On Sultan Elementary School, Chaplik said: “When you add our two preschools, it’s 675 there. And that’s a school that’s built for 416.”

In 2020, Sultan permitted 185 single-family homes. The next year, that grew to 247 homes. More are on the way.

“When I talk to people, they move here because it’s safe. They move here because they have the option to work from home a couple days and they don’t have to get in traffic three days a week,” Chaplik said. “They move here because it’s beautiful. There’s a lot of different reasons.”

Census data shows growth was fairly slow in the decade leading up to 2020, with the city only adding about 500 people. Over the next three years, the town added over 1,000 people.

That has pushed Sultan School District to its limit, staff said.

“It’s overdue,” Smith said. “We need to fix this.”

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046; jordan.hansen@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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