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Letter to the Editor: School Bond Not the Best Choice

Local resident Carole Clarke writes in a letter to the editor that the school bond is not the best for local children, community or property values.

All of us support our schools. That is why it is very hard to come out against a school bond proposal. However, the reason we support schools is because we care about kids. The current bond proposal is not the best solution for our kids, for our property values or for our community.

Over 50 years of educational research (cited in frequent questions on www.no-mi-school-tear-down.com ) shows that elementary schools should be smaller than 500 students and are more cost-effective than their larger counterparts on a variety of measures. Our three existing elementary schools were originally built to that size (Lakeridge 425, Island Park 450, and West Mercer 475.)  Indeed, the average elementary school in Washington State holds 440 students. Why then would we vote for a bond that provides schools that would hold 650-725 students? Why would we wait 8 years for the overcrowding of our schools to end, when we could build just one more elementary school and, thus, allow the three current schools to serve only the number of students for which they were built? The cost of operating a fourth elementary school has been grossly exaggerated. All three principals, at a school board meeting on January 22, said they would each need to add an assistant principal to manage the new mega-elementary schools. The cost of that staffing, plus extra custodial and other staff and bussing, balances out the administrative cost of a new school. Indeed, if we can’t afford to operate a new school, why does the bond call for buying property for a “sixth school?”

The proposed large schools will also not attract parents to buy property on the Island. Parents of young children look for a place where their children will be well known and feel at home. Large schools, by their very nature, do not create those feelings. The bond will particularly hurt property values on the north end of the Island because students from that area will not have a neighborhood school. Starting this fall, new children will be bussed from the north end of the Island to the south end at . Under the bond proposal, West Mercer would be the last school to be rebuilt and it would not accommodate more children than it does now. Meanwhile, more apartments and condos are being built in the town center, where more than 100 new children have already moved. It is time for the city and school district to work together and find a location for a north end school among the properties they own or through negotiations with private landowners.

The bond issue will also hurt our community because we will see Island Crest traffic increase with parents driving their kids from the north end to the south end.  More than that, friction like what developed over PEAK will emerge. The school district gave the site of the old (on West Mercer between 28th and 30th) to PEAK, who then sold it for $6 million and built on district-owned property. Now the district is contracting $6 million for the property, which is too small for a school and located close to an existing south end school. The Superintendent was quoted in the Mercer Island Reporter as saying, “The purchase of the land is subject to a vote of the people.” Let’s just say no by voting against the bond and asking for a school on the north end.

We can do better for our kids, our community and our property values. Please read the letter entitled “A Better School Bond Solution” on www.mercerislandpatch.com , read the site www.no-mi-school-tear-down.com   and vote “REJECT” on your ballot so that we can come together as a community and develop a better plan.

Thank you for reading this,

Carole Clarke, Mercer Island Homeowner

Ken Glass March 23, 2012 at 01:13 AM
I have been intrigued by the smaller school is better argument. Intuitively, I get the benefit of a small community but intellectually I feel schools with more classes per grade will add diversified learning opportunities for all kids that can't be offered at smaller schools. So I did my research (my engineering background sort of requires me to look at source information, analyze the data, and determine best strategies). Seems that small primary schools really become beneficial when under 200 (not feasible here) and schools see downsides from being too big when over 800 (not going to happen with the current bond proposal). From a professional analysis of school size by experts reviewing lots of professional studies: “School size in small (under 200) and medium (400-600) elementary schools had little impact on student performance; however, performance declined significantly as enrollment topped 800”. Source: http://www.wcpss.net/evaluation-research/reports/2003/0303_schoolsize_litrev.pdf. This expert analysis, combined with the fact that our principals support the three school option, leave me convinced that the school size is just fine....(and it is not too surprising as I went to a much larger elementary school and it was great). After reviewing all the data...and digging in ...I am so convinced this is the right plan that I joined the CMIPS teams to promote the bond-- and I hope you'll join me and 1000+ others in supporting the bond. .
TJ Paine March 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM
In the 90's, the district's position was that the schools needed to be under 500. The prevalent research concluded smaller schools provided more contacts between student and teacher as well as for less bullying so we voted for the Bond issues. Also the Bridges Program at MIHS and a similar one at IMS are supported because the connections between adults & students were inadequate in the larger schools. Also Bill Gates' school committee recommendations are for smaller schools. Also,I remember in my studies in "research" that one can find some source to prove the point one wants to promote, even that larger class size does not affect the students' learning. Has anyone ever suggested that W. Mercer would be the ideal size if the Gifted Program were placed somewhere else- possibly a small school? Presently, the programs do not interact with the regular program. Also the Gifted Program is growing with more students qualifying. Island Park and Lakeridge will also decrease with the loss of the Gifted students presently enrolled. Just an idea! Due to the many unanswered points presented in letters and at the school board meetings, especially the question of the actual demographics (the elementary population actually decreased this year) and the research to know the cost of building on the sites, I urge a NO vote. Hence, we will then be able to come to the table and listen to each other, creating an even better plan for the education of all students.
Ken Glass March 24, 2012 at 12:20 AM
TJ brings up some interesting points. Regarding Gates, you cite his early belief. After he spent tons on smaller schools, he too realized that wasn't effective. See http://www.smartbrief.com/news/ascd/storyDetails.jsp?issueid=4BB265D1-077B-4AA0-BBDA-32789B9CE0AF&copyid=B1468E50-FCC0-41AD-AB96-557B1878029A&brief=ascd&sb_code=rss. Regarding class size...the research IS compelling that class size matters most if able to be under 16 (not going to happen any time soon with our state mandated funding). The more important factor is the quality of the teacher in the classroom and the environment for teaching. Great teachers have lots of choices (like teaching where they live -- very few live on MI). Let's work hard to attract and retain the greatest staff possible!
Robert C. Brown March 24, 2012 at 03:24 AM
All five principals (three elementary, two middle co-principals) do not live on Mercer Island, and thus would not pay tax increases should this bond pass. Class sizes are not necessarily all the negatives for mega-schools-- more traffic in larger than smaller schools. School Board Director Dave Myerson for this reason voted against proposing the bond to the public. Also, he did NOT publicly endorsed this bond. He also proposed the voter's pamphlet, which was originally rejected. If my memory serves me right, the third or second (new) grade E2 program will be located at Lakeridge Elementary. This makes sense, as West Mercer is at maximum capacity. However, tearing down and rebuilding West Mercer will not mean more students at the school-- just the same amount. With TJ's idea above, a new fourth school could consist of the SpEd (Lakeridge), ESL (Island Park), and E2 (West Mercer) programs, as well as possibly a sixth grade (to decrease IMS's enrollment). If the bond passes, and enrollment exceeds 700, the Superintendent would "definitely consider" an assistant principal, thus adding about $100'000 to annual costs. Additionally, because the Stevenson school was ruled out, the district would have to either find another swing school or build in place. Just a note about the letter above: it says the "gave the site" of the East Seattle School to PEAK, but it actually sold it to PEAK, who in turn sold it and built on district property (according to the Patch).
TJ Paine March 24, 2012 at 03:36 AM
The only part of small schools Mr. Gates thought a failure was that the schools did not promote a strong decrease in the achievement gap nor a large increase in attendance at college . Since Mercer Island has a strong academic student population who attends college at a high rate, the part of the article to which you referred as the main idea has little relevance. The article indicates the importance of small schools in the pertinent areas for MI. "(Small) schools", says Mr. Gates," were designed to—and did—promote less acting up in the classroom, better attendance and closer interaction with adults."... "We think small schools were a better deal for the kids who went to them." You yourself state, "The more important factor is the quality of the teacher in the classroom and the environment for teaching." All of the community recognizes the importance of the quality teaching we receive on Mercer Island even in the so-called inferior environment that the YES vote contends. If the poorly constructed bond issue results in a NO VOTE, Mercer Island will continue to attract great teachers, like the teacher who stated she left Issaquah to have her child educated on Mercer Island and also to teach at Lakeridge. All of the teachers will continue to provide the best education for our motivated children and grandchildren. I still urge a NO VOTE.
Robert C. Brown March 24, 2012 at 03:59 AM
"21st Century Facilities" are not necessarily needed for all our schools, so the argument that one new elementary school would create a disparity in education is false. Our teachers have taught very well despite being overcrowded, and "21st Century" equipment can wait another 88 years. Overcrowding can't wait, and one school built would instantly increase capacity, rather than incrementally adding just 100-200 student capacities. As Ira pointed out earlier, none of the board members spent money renovating their houses to become "21st Century" with energy efficiency or new technology, showing that they will spend public money more freely than their own finances. Great teachers make great schools, and smaller class sizes help. What other reasons, then, would the MISF fund about 20 teacher positions and countless para-pros? To keep class sizes down, that's why. According to Kris Kelsay's blog, the September 2016 is the "earliest" a fourth elementary school could be put into place. However, according the MISD's "Bond Issue Planning" document, there are several elections upcoming, such as November 6. The resolution would then have to be filed by August 7, which is much more than the 2.5 months to "Draft Election Resolution". Page 11 of the document shows tax rates of districts of similar assessed values, and Issaquah is not there. Therefor, to compare their bond to ours is to compare an apple to an orange.
Robert C. Brown March 24, 2012 at 04:19 AM
According to the MISD's "Bond Issue Planning" document, a possible election date is November 6th with a resolution filing of August 7th. If this bond (hopefully) fails, then that is likely the next bond election date. This allows much more than the recommended 2.5 months to draft a bond resolution, and will mean a school coming online much sooner than the "September 2016" date that Kris Kelsay falsely claims on her website. Also on the document is that statement that "Historically, spring elections have been the most favorable for school bonds". This is perhaps the leading reasons they chose this date, instead of the greater voter turnout general elections. Another point is that on page 11 of the same document, there is a list of districts with "Similar Assessed Value". Issaquah is not on that list, so therefore one cannot compare our bond with theirs -- besides population and bond specification differences. Issaquah had an assessed value for 2011 of over $17.7 billion. Ours? Only $8.4 billion.
TJ Paine March 24, 2012 at 04:08 PM
Thank you, Robert, for pointing out that the 5 principals do not live on Mercer Island. Neither do the principals at MIHS, the Superintendent nor the Executive Director of Business Services and Human Development who in addition is a "retire-rehire" (double dipper) which is not allowed any more for the teaching staff. The YES vote committee uses charts to show that our community has a lower tax rate than surrounding districts. However, the data fails to inform completely. The rate can be lower since our property values are higher so we pay more total dollars in taxes. Also, the generous gifting by the community to the MI School Foundation in the fall and spring should be added to the total amount spent by MI residents. We do pay for schools and are willing to pay more to maintain a quality education. We just want a fair presentation of the facts with all voices able to be heard without negative comments to those willing to speak up, especially by the well paid facilitator. In Robert Brown's comment he mentions $100,000 for an assistant principal but won't 3 be needed? Has that money been included in the budget? Too many missing pieces so a NO VOTE is needed.
Greg Steinhauer March 25, 2012 at 08:21 PM
TJ- Specifically, what are the "missing pieces"? A diverse people gave over a year of their time trying to look at all the options and answer all the questions. You may disagree with the conclusions which is of course your right, but to make that nebulous statement is in fact wrong. All your questions should be answered by the FAQ on the Bond website. One last comment, I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the school administration...and members of the school board and came away very impressed. They have given these issues a tremendous amount of thought and study. I sincerely believe all of them have the interest of the kids and the sustainability of the district as their top concern contrary to many statements made in these blogs.
TJ Paine March 26, 2012 at 10:22 PM
I do support what is "best for kids". I will support a new bond issue that considers the questions & new data. Please don't put the opposition into a "non-supportive of school" box. They ask questions & present data that might have been overlooked. Missing data: -Full cost of bond? $700 on a 1 M house is only the addition. The total rate is much higher (43600). If no additional bonds, MI property tax rates would decline. (The Times reported the actual rates of new & old bond issues would be higher to compensate for decrease of property values.) Is the $3600 quoted based on '12 property values or the higher '11values? What is the result of the probable '13 decrease in property values? -Detailed comparison between building 1 small school & 3 new mega- schools with increased staff? -Source & accuracy of pop data? Elem schools decreased this year. -North End School? Most growth comes from here. -Have 1 school bond at a time, like other school districts do? Could learn what is most conducive to learning before building another school. The committee wasn't diverse- most associated with MISD except for the 3 men who oppose the bond issue; no teachers, only principals gave input. Citizens receiving no compensation were labeled negative, if questioned the majority. What happened to respecting Free Speech & allowing questions? Why the rush for the vote? A new bond issue that answers these questions will result in BETTER schools. VOTE "REJECT"!
Jon H March 27, 2012 at 10:57 PM
TJ - What is your solution? Delay will likely cost the taxpayers more. Interest rate and construction costs are not getting lower. The 4-1-1 solution will be more expensive for a number of reasons. Not to mention finding property to build this new school. As for the demographics, beyond 5 years the numbers are very uncertain from what I can tell. However, that uncertainty makes the case for the 3-1-1 solution. If enrollment drops then the 4th school becomes a burden. North end school sounds nice. Which property? Sequencing of bonds is a risk that will likely cost more.

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