Lawmakers push ahead with school quake funding

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PORT ANGELES — Five of the smaller school districts on the northern Olympic Peninsula would qualify for earthquake retrofit grants under legislation that had its first hearing last week before the state’s capital budget committee.

Based on 2020-21 enrollment, eligible school districts in the Northern Olympic Peninsula are Cape Flattery and Crescent in Clallam County and the Chimacum, Quilcene and Quileute Tribal school districts in Jefferson County. Port Townsend misses the cut by 153 students.

Longtime earthquake preparedness advocate Jim Buck said Friday that HB 1775 doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s a good place to start, but it won’t solve the problem,” said the Joyce resident, an engineer and West Point graduate who served as the state’s representative for the 24th District from 1995 to 2006.

He said a more pressing issue for schools than the much-anticipated Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake of magnitude 8 and above are the 6.5 to 7.2 tremors common in the Pacific Northwest all around 35 years old.

Buck wants lawmakers to appropriate $4.5 billion over 15 years to hedge against these small tremors. A Cascadia earthquake has a 37% chance of occurring within the next 50 years, with the high end of scientific estimates, he admits, dropping to 10%.

“We can’t trust the best-case scenario,” Buck said, saying Saturday he supported another bill, SB 5933.

Scheduled to be introduced on Monday and filed on leg.wa.gov, it would put a $500 million school seismic grant bond before voters in November.

Capital Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend and fellow 24th District Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim said Friday they support HB 1775. The district covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.

All three said Saturday they were open to favoring SB 5933.

Under HB 1775, school districts with 1,000 or fewer students, those “generally unable to participate in the current school construction funding program,” according to the bill, may apply for funding. to modernize and replace teaching facilities.

Beneficiaries must contribute at least 30% of project costs.

“I think it’s pretty well thought out,” Tharinger said, adding that no speakers at Tuesday’s hearing raised concerns about the district’s 30% membership requirement.

Without a school district’s “skin in the game,” like a bond, the state could be left on the hook for all costs, he said.

But Tharinger, Van De Wege and Chapman were less optimistic about creating a committee to lead efforts to prepare for earthquake-resistant schools, which Buck discussed with 24th District lawmakers.

Chapman, who chairs the Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the state’s Department of Natural Resources is already conducting an earthquake safety assessment at schools across the state, but had so far mainly focused on Puget Sound (dnr.wa.gov).

Another year of work needs to be done on the study, said Chapman, co-sponsor of HB 1775.

“We are taking action,” Chapman said. “They may not be as fast as some would like.”

He said the legislation wisely focuses in this initial effort on small school districts that are unable to find funds for new schools.

Chapman said it was too late for lawmakers to form the committee Buck is seeking during the current 60-day session, which ended Friday in its second week. In 11 days, lawmakers face a deadline.

With lawmakers only approving a supplementary budget, the last day to pass bills from most committees and send them to the original House floor is February 3. The deadline for the House Tax Committees and the Senate Ways and Means and Transportation Committees is Feb. 7.

The last day to bring all Bills out of their original home is February 15.

Tharinger said he was not convinced a new committee was needed.

“We have a pretty good process now,” he said. “It’s just a matter of funding.”

Van De Wege said a committee is one option, but the state office of the superintendent of public instruction can do most of what a task force can do.

He said in a later email that the districts were already struggling with crumbling facilities and soaring maintenance and operating expenses, and were already struggling to get levies through.

Van De Wege said he would advocate raising the 1,000 enrollment threshold for school districts to be eligible for HB 1775 grants.

Buck said Saturday he favors Senate Bill 5933, which was submitted late Friday afternoon, over HB 1775.

Sponsored by Democratic Sen. David Frockt of Seattle and Republican Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville, it would establish a $500 million bond-funded seismic safety grant program subject to voter approval.

All schools in Washington State could apply for grants.

It will be referred to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. Frockt is vice-chairman and Schoesler a vice-member of the committee.

“That puts $500 million on the ballot in November,” Buck said Saturday.

“Voters decide that, which would be a slam dunk. The happiest thing I love about it is that it will put the issue in front of the public eye.

Tharinger said on Saturday he needed to take a closer look at the bill.

“In some ways it makes sense,” he said. “Voters would have a say in whether they wanted the state to have a new obligation.”

Issuing bonds “could be a good way to go,” Van De Wege said on Saturday.

“I want to make sure the program is open to school safety in general,” he said. “We shouldn’t just be pouring money into schools for things like earthquake safety when there are many other dangers.”

Chapman said, “On the face of it, that’s something I would support.”

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Lead writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected]


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