As Seattle Public Schools finalizes its list of nearly $700 million in proposed construction projects, which will be on the ballot in February, priority is going to overcrowded schools. Many worn-out buildings, including the one that has the worst rating in the district, won't get fixed for years.

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Not long ago, a school building as old and worn out as Arbor Heights Elementary could count on being at the top of Seattle Public Schools’ priority list for remodeling.

Half its classrooms are 1950s-vintage portables with yellowing plexiglass windows, and grass-clogged cracks riddle the asphalt playground. Signs in the bathrooms warn students not to drink the water. In some classrooms, students can see their breath on cold days, and one day last spring, a hot-water pipe burst and a group of students had to huddle to the side of the classroom while their teacher and staffers mopped up the mess.

A 2009 analysis gave the Southwest Seattle school the worst rating of any building in the district in terms of educational adequacy. Yet the district’s nearly $700 million proposal for a six-year school-construction levy, presented to the Seattle School Board on Wednesday evening, puts off renovating the 63-year-old elementary for another six years.

The district also plans to put an operations levy on the February ballot. Together the two requests, if no major changes are made when the School Board approves them in November, could total $1.25 billion, the district’s largest request ever.

School Board members and district officials say newer schools in better shape must take priority over schools like Arbor Heights because they are seriously overcrowded, with barely enough room for the students they have, and more scheduled to arrive next fall.

“Arbor Heights would love to be first, and I would love to be able to make them first,” said School Board member Sherry Carr. “But I don’t know how to answer to the citizens if we don’t have enough seats for kids.”

For decades, the district’s construction levies focused on remodeling old buildings, but that was before the district found itself in the throes of an unanticipated enrollment boom. This fall, it had to find space for an additional 1,400 students, with 4,000 to 6,000 more expected over the next four years.

“That’s a wonderful thing to have happened to us, but we do need to plan for it,” Pegi McEvoy, assistant superintendent of operations, told the board Wednesday night.

That’s one reason why the construction levy’s recommended price tag, at $695 million, is so high, about $200 million more than the last one, passed in 2007. Since both the construction and operations levies would renew existing measures, the additional cost to taxpayers wouldn’t be astronomical — anywhere from $135 to $160 more a year for owners of a $400,000 house.

Still, officials are aware that they’re asking a lot when the economy is still ailing. The request also comes at a time when the district is trying to regroup after losing nearly all its top leaders in the last year or two, the result of an embarrassing financial scandal that again raised questions about how well the district manages taxpayer money.

School Board President Michael DeBell said he’s conscious that $1.25 billion is an enormous amount of money. Yet he hopes voters understand that the request is up because the district has “a wave of new kids that we have to accommodate.”

Levy supporters also say that the district is on time and under budget with the work approved under its 2007 construction levy.

The board is scheduled to vote Nov. 7 on what to include in the final package.

Building, expansion

The proposal presented Wednesday reflects discussions with school staff members, the board and the public that started last January.

Of the proposed $695 million, $479 million would go toward building and expanding schools. Plans call for building two new elementary schools, a new middle school and a new K-8, all in Seattle’s North End, where enrollment is growing the fastest. An additional 13 schools would be remodeled or replaced, including Arbor Heights Elementary.

The proposal also includes seismic improvements and technology upgrades. Planning money for a downtown school also remains in the recommendations.

If approved, the levy would allow the district to keep all its middle schools to fewer than 1,000 students, and would cut the number of portable classrooms in half.

The new schools would be built on property the district already owns, replacing an existing building or, in the case of Thornton Creek Elementary in Northeast Seattle, placing a second school on the site.

The plan is not without controversy.

There are concerns about the loss of open space and sports fields at the Thornton Creek site, and the fact that, as it stands now, several schools would be displaced, including the district’s oldest alternative school, Pinehurst K-8. Some critics think the plan wouldn’t relieve overcrowding enough.

District officials said they are giving first priority to projects that increase school safety, followed closely by those that will relieve overcrowding. Then comes renovating old buildings such as Arbor Heights and Wing Luke Elementary, which has the second-worst building-condition rating.

Board meeting

About two dozen parents and teachers from Arbor Heights showed up at Wednesday’s School Board meeting, lobbying to move up their school’s remodel date.

District officials have said they are looking at possible ways to start an Arbor Heights remodel sooner, perhaps by taking out a type of loan called a tax anticipation note. But they don’t yet know how much that might cost, and they’ve made no promises.

McEvoy, the assistant superintendent of operations, said the district has addressed and continues to address all the health and safety issues at the school, including getting rid of mold a few years back. So while it isn’t pretty, it is safe, she maintains.

Still, parents worry whether those fixes will hold, or whether new problems will crop up.

Their concerns are not allayed when they see rat traps that custodians have spread around the building, or the 8 to 10 inches of water that wells up under the portable classrooms during the winter months — “Lake Arbor Heights,” as Principal Christy Collins calls it.

Some parents argue that a new building at Arbor Heights would attract more families, easing the crunch at other schools in the area. They say they know families that have moved to attend already overcrowded schools rather than send their children to Arbor Heights Elementary.

Those parents say they stay because the school’s staff is strong, especially under Collins. Other parents can’t see past the building.

Last winter, as a group of prospective parents gathered to tour the school, Collins said one woman took a look around the foyer and abruptly walked out, loudly saying she was just not going to send her child there.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or