Education

108-year-old high school among those to be rebuilt if Tacoma approves $535M bond measure

Oakland High School in Tacoma is 108 years old, and it shows.

Inside the building, the ceiling is darkened with leaks. Plumbing and electrical issues are not uncommon.

There’s no central air and no way to regulate temperature. Classrooms feel muggy and dark, lacking windows.

Even for a high school with only 162 students, the building seems small.

“It was built as an elementary school, and so everything was built for elementary students,” explained Lady Salamasina Patu, a sophomore at Oakland High School.

A new future could be in store for the school.

Located at 3319 S. Adams St., Oakland is one eight schools listed for replacement as part of a Tacoma Public Schools’ proposed bond measure on the Feb. 11 special election ballot.

Students and staff says it has the potential to change the atmosphere at Oakland for the better.

The bond

At $535 million, the Tacoma Public Schools general obligations bond proposes eight school replacements or renovations, in addition to safety and facility enhancements in schools district-wide. That ranges from HVAC replacements and ADA improvements to new security cameras and secure entryways with restricted access.

The schools marked for replacement average 69 years in age. Oakland is the oldest, built in 1912.

In the bond, TPS proposes a “historic modernization” for Oakland — the only one of its kind on the ballot. The brick facade of the building is on the City of Tacoma’s register of historic places, meaning it must remain untouched during renovations, but the rest of the building would be gutted and built anew.

If the bond passes, the cost to the average homeowner would increase $6.79 per month ($81.48 annually) for Tacoma schools.

Tacoma voters have a history of passing school bonds, unlike its counterparts in more rural areas like Bethel School District, which successfully passed a $443 million bond in 2019, its first since 2006. Bonds require a supermajority of 60 percent voter approval to pass.

Tacoma voters last passed a school bond in 2013 at 70.71 percent approval. The $500 million measure replaced or renovated 14 deteriorating neighborhood schools across Tacoma. Three of those projects are awaiting completion, with the Grant Center for the Expressive Arts the most recent replacement this month.

Oakland’s future

Principal John Jones takes a lot of pride in Oakland.

Oakland was named a School of Distinction for raising graduation rates and test scores on a consistent basis. Oakland also is home to the district’s first school-based health clinic, which more districts are investing in. There’s a day care on site, and Jones would like to see a preschool open one day, too.

At the same time, there are things that need fixing, Jones said. For one, the school isn’t ADA compliant, with only stairs to reach the upper levels. When it rains, the school has to bring in workers to squeegee the water off the flat roof.

“The heating isn’t so well, so that makes it hard to learn in a cold environment,” said Oakland senior Faehannah Muliufi.

“It’s pretty tough some days,” Jones said. “It’s hard to stay in those classrooms.”

At some level, Jones feels the distractions interfere with learning at Oakland, where students have varying backgrounds.

Oakland operates differently from a traditional high school with an alternative schedule. Students can earn credits through work-based learning programs, online classes, independent study and volunteer hours.

“I’m very proud of our students because they’re very resilient. They’ve gone through stuff that people shouldn’t have to go through, and yet they don’t quit,” Jones said. “I think we owe it to our students to have the best that we can offer.”

Some students feel Oakland gets a bad rap.

“When I ask (students), ‘What do people say about Oakland?’ they say, ‘Oh, we’re the bad kids … and I know that’s not true,” Jones said.

If the bond passes, junior Lady Evamona Patu likely will be long gone from Oakland before any renovations start, but she finds it important to fight for future students.

“For other students, I think it might be nicer to be newer and more comfortable,” she said.

“Most of this is for future students, to help them have a better education and better environments to work in,” added Muliufi.

Jones said an investment in a school is investment in the community, even for people who don’t have kids.

“I just think it would go a long way to tell those students, ‘Yeah, we do recognize you. Yes, you do have a voice ...You deserve the best that everyone has across the district,’” Jones said.

Proposed school replacements/renovations:

Bryant Montessori

Downing Elementary

Fawcett Elementary

Hunt Middle School

Lowell Elementary School

Oakland High School

Skyline Elementary

Whittier Elementary

Will your school see any facility or security upgrades if the bond passes? Check out the map at tacomaschools.org/vote/2020.

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