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The Predatory Universe of Non-Profits in Happy Valley

By On

Something about Bellingham’s poverty brings out the worst, even in the best of us.

The Kulshan Land Trust ushered it’s presence into Happy Valley with the development of Matthei Place, a fourteen unit housing development at 15th and Harris that replaced 19 famously affordable units historically known as the Barracks. Many appreciate Kulshan’s mission and the need for institutional assistance in meeting affordable housing targets, but any development rightly raises a number of questions. In this case, there remains some lingering sentiment that the units Kulshan replaced were substantially more affordable to persons at much lower income levels than those served by the land trust.

Now, neighborhood concern is growing over whether Kulshan’s next move will similarly disrupt another long-standing community icon. Late last year, Kulshan entered into a purchase and sales agreement for the land currently housing the Bellingham Cooperative School at 2810 McKenzie.

Long known as “A Country School in the City”, the Bellingham Cooperative School was founded in 1969. It serves students in preschool, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, elementary school grades 1–5 and middle school grades 6–8, including before and after school care. The school is approved by the Washington State Board of Education and approved for Home Schooling support. Situated on 2.2 acres, the school site consists of two buildings surrounded by play fields, gardens, natural areas, pasture and fruit trees. The unique location allows children to actively connect with nature, supporting an environment consistent with the latest research in children’s learning.

The schoolhouse and play yard are also a community resource for meetings, neighborhood picnics and events, such as hosting music, games and even the The Flying Karamazov Brothers’ Traveling Chautauqua.

However, the school is not a big money maker and cannot compete with the real estate market for the land it occupies. That land was originally purchased by and for the school. It was wholly paid for by student tuitions and parent contributions. Unfortunately, about twelve years ago, the original founders of the school sold the school operation, but retained the property within the original 501 C-3 tax exempt, non-profit corporate shell. The organization’s federal filings, remarkably, list no assets. The school operation, a registered state charity, meanwhile has dutifully fulfilled the mission of the non-profit’s federal charter.

Now, with its principals in retirement, the original non-profit organization has revised its mission statement and changed its name to Taecan, Inc. Taecan wants to tap the financial might of Kulshan, supposedly to fund activities within its newly recast purpose. The particulars are as yet unclear, since there are no records of any programs, reports and filings are not available and access to their minutes and financial records has been refused. At a recent meeting hosted by Kulshan Land Trust to introduce the proposed development, the propriety of the transaction and the end use of the non-profit funds were categorically excluded from discussion.

It’s not clear how Kulshan can ever achieve affordability at the site, starting at more than four times the land cost per unit compared to Matthei Place, where they have already had to push their income limits to qualify buyers. Many are wondering whether the success of one non-profit should be at the expense of another, whether this is really the intent of grantors and contributors to non-profit causes. Sure we need affordable housing, but should it cost us a school that has served area children for almost forty years? If we cannot sustain an institution like the Bellingham Cooperative School, what business do we have even discussing sustainability? Gaining strength by taking advantage of the school’s weakness certainly ought to add a little tarnish to the mantle of sustainability that Kulshan so proudly assumes.

A citizen group has formed to investigate the sources and fate of these community non-profit funds and to discuss alternatives for preserving the school. Join the conversation at savetheschool@skookum.us.

About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

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Tip Johnson

Feb 12, 2011

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