As school districts across the Pacific Northwest face the dilema of aging facilities, the Bellingham School District shows that one district had a lot of answers forced on them. But those answers now lead to a lot of new questions. Confusing? Yeah, I thought so.

While definitely not the largest district in Washington with just shy of 11,000 students in the district, Bellingham showcases issues facing schools throughout the Pacific Northwest. With needs high, state funding available and construction costs low, if the voter backing is there, districts want to move forward to upgrade aging facilities.

How to move forward becomes the big question. Bellingham got a little ahead of the game with a 2006 bond that paid for upgrades throughout the district and two new schools. The first of the two new facilities, Kulshan Middle School, opened in 2009. And it sure was good timing, being that things didn’t go as planned at Whatcom Middle School during its $3 million seismic upgrade.

A fire—while not official, it remains possible that a welding torch used on the roof of historic school started the blaze—charred that building beyond use in November 2009.

A seismic upgrade wasn’t good enough anymore for this 1903 landmark. Luckily for the district, insurance companies are picking up the roughly $17 million tab for mostly new construction of the structure. Planned for a fall 2012 opening, the school will follow the same footprint as before, but with some slight modifications in the interior.

The new structure—designed by Dykeman Architects of Everett—will look nearly identical to the old and is actually being built surrounding the original walls, which are now being removed. “The old and damaged exteriors walls and interior are being demolished, now that a new exterior is in place,” says an update from the school district. “Rebuilding of the interior of the school will follow.”

The Bellingham-based Dawson Construction crew will maintain the two historic 1903 entrances, but new commons and some new features will get added in.

While a fire forced the district’s hand on Whatcom Middle School, it may be public opinion that sways the final choice on what to do with needs at Birchwood Elementary School. The district is asking for public opinion on how to handle needs at that school. Should it remodel or rebuild?

That question gets a bit trickier with the fact that Whatcom County’s Tiger Construction will have the brand-new Cordata Elementary School ready for the fall 2011 school year, a project also part of the 2006 bond. Now school officials must decide if they are going to open the new school as planned or use it as a layover for Birchwood students while crews get to work there.

But let’s be serious, Bellingham has it easy. With the readiness of a new Cordata and state funds upwards of $9 million available to use on Birchwood, the only real decision for officials is how to make the work happen. There are far more districts around the state just hoping work can happen.

Up the road just a few miles in Lynden, the Lynden School District has been hoping for years to build a new middle school to replace its 1960s facilities. It has finally decided to go to voters—mainly because the need can’t wait any more and state funds are available for them too—for a completely new school on a new site (it was deemed cheaper and less risky than rebuilding at the current location) and also for upgrades and rebuilds at one of the district’s elementary schools.

Whether the dilemma in Lynden, Bellingham or pretty much anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest, voters and school officials will all be wrestling with the same questions on building new, renovating and the costs associated with it all.