Accessing grant funding to help update aging facilities is becoming increasingly important for rural schools in Eastern Washington as communities are less willing to take on large debt obligations, according to area superintendents.
A recent period of Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) grants from the state was very competitive among schools, especially rural schools that are facing the dual challenge of declining or stagnant enrollments and aging facilities. The Office of the Superintendent said over 34 districts applied for the 2016 STEM grants, but only six were awarded.
Although the Chewelah School District was not awarded one of the 2016 STEM grants, two other school districts in Stevens County, Kettle Falls and Nine Mile Falls, were both awarded funds. The competitiveness of the grants emphasizes how funding capital improvement projects has changed over the years.
Brian Talbott, Superintendent at Nine Mile Falls, said it has been increasingly difficult for his district of roughly 1,350 students to pass bond measures to fund facilities improvements.
“We have had a bond measure fail twice. So getting the grant money is important for us to help us make the upgrades we need,” said Talbott. “We have had an enrollment decline for the last eight years and most of the homes in the district are homes with land, which make them too expensive for young families to move into the area. We also have very little business infrastructure in the district, so the total bond cost falls on the property owner. That makes it hard for people to commit to a long term debt.”
The last failed bond proposal the Nine Mile Falls district put out to the community was for a $40 million project, $30 million which would be from local taxes. Voters turned down the $1.35 per $1,000 assessed value measure, declining to take on the debt obligation.
Nine Mile Falls received a $1.2 million STEM grant that also required a $100,000 match from the community. With the money, the district plans to add a modular building to the campus with lab classrooms. The school currently offers 22 science classes for high schoolers, but only has one true lab for use which means students often have to stand and watch a teacher perform an experiment, for instance, instead of being able to do it themselves.
Kettle Falls to further robotics program
In Kettle Falls, the STEM grant money will enable the district to offer better science and vocational classes, along with furthering the development of their current robotics program. The $1.6 million grant will remodel an existing metal shop space to include science lab areas and equipment, as well as adding new metal shop tools like a TIG welder, a 3D printer and a plasma cutter. The grant funds will be a significant help to the district that has had a declining enrollment for the last 10 years and has not run a bond measure in the recent past, said Kettle Falls High School Principal Curtis Corvino.
The grant will allow the school to help students acquire the skills that area businesses have been asking for.
“We went out to our business community as we were looking at this grant and talked to our area businesses and the company CEOs to find out what they need from us,” said Corvino.
Corvino said along with networking with area businesses, the school also works to bring in professionals to share with students about their industry and the skills employers are looking for. Those same local businesses kicked in over $150,000 in time and materials as the needed match for the STEM grant.
Kettle Falls Superintendent Thaynan Knowlton said the district’s approach to the STEM grants was not simply looking at a fix for their facilities, but recognizing they needed upgraded resources to respond to feedback from the business community.
“We have been working to make community connections with mentors who can come into our school and let students know that education is not just about a class, it’s not just about getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’,” said Knowlton. “So when we approached this grant we didn’t look at it as just a fix to our old building, but about getting the tools to prepare students for the workforce.”
Superintendent Knowlton credits Kettle Falls’ success in the grant application process to strong leadership in the school and a determination to apply for funding opportunities.
“Our previous principle, Jim Hill, would operate under the principal ‘what would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ and the staff here are committed to never being discouraged. We are always applying for something. We have submitted many grant proposals and many have failed,” said Knowlton.
Knowlton said Kettle Falls and other districts were also encouraged to see how Chewelah had taken a different approach to facilities funding by running a smaller levy to improve the high school track at Chewelah.
“We have all been a bit scared to run bond measures, but seeing how the smaller levy worked for Chewelah gives us some ideas,” said Knowlton. “Maybe smaller projects are the way to get it done.”
By Jamie Henneman/The Independent Staff