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Letter to the Editor: Actually, a Vote Against the Bonds IS a Vote Against Schools

Resident and former 21 CFPC committee member Toby Suhm, a supporter of the $196 voter-approved school bond on the April ballot, responds to an earlier letter from bond opponent David de Yarza.

(Ed. Note: This letter is in response to David de Yarza's letter, "".)

Editor:

David de Yarza wrote a long letter last week that we felt demanded a response. As he has done at public forums, Mr. de Yarza spends the early part of his letter establishing that he is an active and supportive school volunteer. Like Mr. de Yarza, we too are long-time, active volunteers and school supporters. Unlike Mr. de Yarza, we believe that a vote against the school bond equates to a vote against our schools.
 
Let’s take a look at his main points -

  • “There is disturbing little detail in the proposed bond” – For someone who claims to be so well informed on the school construction industry, he sounds surprisingly uninformed. Even a cursory look at recent bond proposals in neighboring school districts shows the same level of detail as the Mercer Island bond. For example, a list of the projects on the upcoming Issaquah bond with similarly developed cost estimates can be found at - http://www.issaquah.wednet.edu/district/bond/. The reality is, at this point in a school capital project, estimates developed with the assistance of school construction experts are used to inform voters. The approximately $3 million dollars needed  to do the detail design work Mr. de Yarza describes become available once voters have approved the bond.
  • Comparison of a new school construction to a kitchen remodel – In a remodel, you aren’t quite sure what you are going to find inside the walls and under the old flooring. Old electrical, outdated plumbing, damaged sub-floor, all can lead to a cost overrun on a remodel project. In a new construction project, you are starting with a clean slate and know up front what you will be dealing with. A nice sound bite by Mr. de Yarza, but not a valid comparison.
  • “Once we start adding detail to the plan, we are going to find out the real cost” - The estimates for the cost of the 3 elementary schools and the middle school were developed with the assistance of school construction experts and based on analysis of literally hundreds of new school construction projects around the Puget Sound area in the past 10 years. The district and its consultants considered potential issues with our school sites, the features of 21st century schools, the latest thinking on building green schools, and included amounts for contingencies. They are reliable estimates on which voters can make an informed decision.
  • “Today’s state of the art facilities are hugely complicated systems and take a team approach to plan and design” – Now we are getting to Mr. de Yarza’s real issue, one he has raised at several public forums. He claims his firm specializes in a General Contractor/Construction Management  (“GCCM”) process that brings the architect and builder together early in the process. However, he fails to mention it is often more expensive because it eliminates elements of the competitive bidding process. Mr. de Yarza is advocating the district take this approach on each of the schools and is opposing the bond because he believes they won’t. We’ve talked to school design architects, contractors and school district personnel with decades of experience in building schools. They all agree that GCCM is an appropriate approach for more complex projects. They also agree that the 3 elementary schools are straight forward projects that may not lend themselves to a GCCM approach, but that the Middle School might. Finally, his firm’s website lists a number of other construction methods they specialize in given the nature of the project. So GCCM is not the only approach for large construction projects.
  • “More troubling… even if we succeed… we will be having this discussion again in 30 years” – Island residents had this conversation 60 years ago as they planned our current schools.  Residents had it again 20 years ago when they began discussing school remodels.  Now we’re having it, and I hope our children who stay on the Island have the conversation again in another 30 years.  Let’s continue the legacy that began in the 1950s, and let our children ensure the legacy lives on into the future.
  • “We should be demanding that the City Council and the School Board work together” – The simple fact is they do work together, but they have different responsibilities and obligations to the community. On this project, City Council member Bruce Bassett represented the City Council on the 21st Century Facility Planning Committee (“21CFPC”), the School Board held briefings with the City Council several times during the year to update the City Council on the work of the 21CFPC, and has had another joint meeting since then.
  • “I feel very sad when I hear people say that they moved here for the schools and feel disappointed when they visit the school building. The school is much more than just a building” – Yes Mr. de Yarza, the school is more than the building. It is also the staff, the administration and the students. But the building houses the students and staff. The staff tells us that the facilities have become so crowded that it affects program – that means our kids’ education.  Students and parents tell us that children don’t have time to eat lunch; that some portables are so far away from a bathroom that children don’t have time to get there; and that science, music, PE and art are negatively impacted by inadequate space.  With some of our buildings at 40% over capacity, 50 years old, and not up to current earthquake codes, it is easy to understand why new and existing families are disappointed with our school facilities. 
  • “Please vote no, and tell the School Board to collaborate with the City Council in coming up with a comprehensive plan that will spare our children this same conversation” – This plan, which meets projected K-8 enrollment needs for the next twenty years, is comprehensive.  It was developed by a citizens committee who spent a year looking at all the available options. The school board spent another 4 months analyzing the recommendations. It begins to provide overcrowding relief in 3 years. It spreads school construction over 8 years to keep our tax rates steady.  It takes advantage of low interest rates.  It establishes bond terms so that bonds expire in time to rebuild a high school.  It includes the acquisition of property to provide flexibility for future unknowns, and it includes a master plan for the North Mercer campus.  It’s hard to imagine a more well-studied, thoughtful, and comprehensive plan.  

I encourage you to dig a little deeper on the claims and statements from the opponents of the bond. I believe that if you do, you’ll see that their criticisms were addressed by the 21CFPC and by the board in developing this bond issue for our schools. Join me in supporting the bond so we can get started on the vitally important work of replacing our overcrowded, aging schools.

Toby Suhm

Kendall Watson March 22, 2012 at 10:57 PM
MISD Headcount, Oct. 1, 2011: 4,205. http://patch.com/A-rKV9
David de Yarza March 22, 2012 at 11:14 PM
It is hard to resist bringing this up after writing that I would not address Mr. Suhm's letter point by point, but the assertion that even a cursory look at the recently proposed bond by neighboring Issaquah will discredit me as it has a similar lack of detail, is just too good of an example to use. Please take the time to look at the information in Issaquah's bond. (Main link provided by Mr. Suhm above). I particularly like this one: http://www.issaquah.wednet.edu/documents/election/bond/finalapproved2012.pdf New building construction is tagged "Space Addition" in the system column. Find those new projects in the linked PDF and look at the description column. And in the interest of transparency, check out the data provided by Issaquah of what the history of construction is in the district: http://www.issaquah.wednet.edu/documents/election/bond/bondpage/history.pdf This is not even close to the same level of detail. It might not look as pretty as our website, but there is data there to read for days. That is what I would like to see before approving nearly $200M. Who dropped the ball on our end?
Lenore March 23, 2012 at 06:19 AM
Unfortunately, total enrollment figures really aren't relevant here. The question is are the new buildings to house similar numbers of students, and if so, why are our cost estimates so much higher than Issaquah's? If our buildings are going to hold a lot more students, then we can expect to pay more. Otherwise, there is a problem with the estimated costs that would cause many people to vote no.
Kendall Watson March 23, 2012 at 04:08 PM
My understanding is that the schools will have a design capacity of 650, with the possibility of expanding them in additional remodels (if necessary — not part of this bond)) to 725. That's significantly larger design capacity than current design. Also part of the equation is these schools will need new designs — not off-the-shelf like in Issaquah, where they use the same plans over and over again. There are other reasons for the higher cost per sq/ft. as well. I would suggest looking at the MISD website for this info, or perhaps the two political campaigns have more information about this.
David de Yarza March 27, 2012 at 03:56 PM
This quote is from the 21st CPC board recommendation: "These costs were rough estimate only, to give the committee a sense of the costs of relative options. The School Board would need to do extensive independent costing before putting a bond proposal before the public." That is a direct quote. This is the board recommendation that Mr. Suhm and the rest of the 21st CPC presented to the school board. See for yourself, the document is on the district's website: http://www.misd.k12.wa.us/board/agenda/documents/21CFPC%20Rec%2009-26-11-FINALa.pdf My point exactly.

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