The Hoquiam School District took a seismic pivot Monday evening by stepping away from the $42 million capital projects bond it was preparing to place on the ballot next February.
Instead of asking district taxpayers to support major renovations at Hoquiam High School and its other aging buildings, the district will soon ask the state to cover those costs as Washington continues the effort to retrofit its most earthquake and tsunami-prone schools.
Hoquiam School District Superintendent Mike Villarreal said Monday evening he plans within the next few weeks to submit the district’s letter of intent opting in the first phase of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Seismic Safety Grant Program, which would put the district on a path to paying for seismic improvements to each of its schools, including the potential for a replacement of Hoquiam High School.
“What a blessing,” Villarreal said after a meeting of the Hoquiam School District Board of Directors Monday evening, when board members expressed their support for pursuing the program after hearing a presentation from school construction officials with the Educational Services District 112.
Villarreal said he was “shocked” when OSPI officials contacted him within the last several weeks to discuss the large amount of money available to Hoquiam for bolstering its resilience to geologic hazards. The district was facing an early December deadline — or 60 days before the February election — to place its $42 million bond on the ballot but had not yet submitted a formal resolution. The board approved that bond amount at a meeting in August after a 27-member bond committee hashed out the district’s priorities for building improvements over the course of six weeks this summer.
Some of those project priorities overlap with those of the state seismic program, but the exact nature of the seismic projects, and their funding requirements, won’t be clear until the district completes the preliminary and planning phases of the state program. Andy Twyman, a school construction expert with ESD 112, said that by entering the seismic program now, geotechnical and structural studies should be complete by next summer, giving a clearer picture about the scope of the projects, and whether or not a bond of a smaller amount is still needed.
“At this point we might have to take a step back from where we were on our timeline plan, and to take advantage of this (OSPI seismic funding) — it might delay our plan a little bit and incorporate some other construction features,” Hoquiam School Board President Chris Eide said Monday evening.
Geologists assessed the seismic vulnerability of Hoquiam schools in 2018 as part of a multi-year effort led by the Department of Natural Resources to gauge how schools across Washington might hold up to geologic hazards. It found Hoquiam High School was built on stiff soils subject to heavy shaking during an earthquake and sits within tsunami and landslide hazard areas.
One year after the DNR completed that study, the Washington state Legislature created the seismic safety program, kindling it with $100 million of startup funding and padding it with $40 million in the current biennium.
OSPI prioritized projects schools in the most geologically hazardous locations on the outer Washington coast, like North Beach and Taholah school districts, where some projects are entering the design phase. Now that planning projects are in motion for those areas, schools in Hoquiam and Aberdeen are next on the list, said Scott Black, who is helping develop the seismic program for OSPI.
In four phases, the seismic safety program provides grants for geological surveys, conceptual designs and construction of projects including school replacements or relocations, building retrofits, and tsunami vertical evacuation towers.
According to state law, the seismic grants don’t have a maximum and must account for two-thirds of project costs.
Black did not say how much grant funding might be available to the Hoquiam district, but confirmed that OSPI discussed how grants could help the district fund construction of a new Hoquiam High School. Villarreal and Eide said Monday the district could receive a greater amount than from the bond resolution it drafted this summer.
“As a taxpayer, that’s huge,” Eide said. “We were looking at a 20-year commitment for the taxpayers to pay for this bond. It was a big ask. If we can take advantage of this, that is exciting.”
Should the bond have passed, the district would have received $64 million, including $42 million of taxpayer money and $22 million of state construction assistance funding, which is available for projects on buildings more than 30 years old.
The district prioritized $52 million in renovations to Hoquiam High School, built in 1966, including a roof replacement, new HVAC system and electrical, plumping, sprinkler and storm upgrades, plus ADA and security improvements, among others. Emerson Elementary and Hoquiam Middle School are in need of similar work, and the bond proposal allocated them a combined total of about $10 million.
According to Randy Newman, director of the seismic program, any project receiving seismic grant funds must also, by law, be eligible for construction assistance funding. That means the $22 million in state funds the district hoped to capture by passing a bond could instead be captured with the seismic safety grant, and constitute part, or all, of the remaining one-third of project costs for renovating or rebuilding schools.
“In the end, the cost locally and the project that will equate from going this alternative route is going to be a blessing from many, many directions,” Dax Logsdon, a school construction expert with ESD 112, told the school board Monday. “I don’t think that all the effort that was put in will be lost. That will just transfer in a different way,” he said, referring to the weeks and months of planning the bond committee conducted while hashing out details of the bond.
Board member Hoki Moir said the OSPI opportunity is “absolutely huge for our community, not just for the kids, but for our community as a whole.”
District officials started the planning process for the bond earlier this year after functional necessities in buildings across the district began to break down. Dwindling student enrollment has left the district with less apportioned state funding for maintenance around the district. The district had enough maintenance funds to replace a roof on Emerson Elementary, and opted to shut down Central Elementary by 2025 at the earliest to consolidate space and costs.
Because enrollment numbers are still low, Villarreal said that decision hasn’t changed for the time being. He acknowledged the many logistical questions, such as grade configurations, will still need to be answered as the district moves forward with the seismic program.
Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or email@example.com.