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Letter to the Editor: It's Time to Step Up and Pass the School Bond

New Mercer Island parent (and proud dog owner) David Hetzel writes in a letter to the editor that MISD school facilities are failing students, teachers and the school district and it's time the community finally did something about it.

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Recently moving to Mercer Island from the Midwest, I was shocked and somewhat perplexed to learn , with such a solid national reputation, are actually in crisis — 34% overcrowding today, growing to 41% by 2015 — and old buildings that are failing teachers, kids and the administration. Who's ever heard of moving a piano into the hallway so the drama teacher can instruct kids one the upcoming musical, as others floated by. Really!!?

And yes, I was saddened to hear that kids remark more about the crowds and the lines at the science fair, rather than discuss their excitement or amazement about the cool projects. This is not good. I asked myself, is this really the right community to raise my twin girls? Did I really want this for them? Honestly, when we toured it was underwhelming for the whole family... Great people, but the building was loud, crowded and kinda dingy.

I was shocked that such a proud and strong community would allow its schools to fall into such disarray and perplexed that an affluent community would so totally underfund its schools. Are we really ranked 12th of 15 for capital funding per student? Really? C'mon, we're Mercer Island and we've got to be better than this. Schools are the backbone of a community. It's been 50 years or more since some of these schools were built. What's the deal Mercer Island; it's time for MI to do the the right thing — it's time to stand squarely behind our kids' schooling and help them build great futures, by building/funding these long needed improvements in our academic island infrastructure such that excellence in education and in enrichment programs, music, theater and sports can grow and prosper.

It's simple, let's help build the proper facilities so teachers can teach, kids can learn and parents can be proud they made it happen... And in so doing we build a better, stronger Mercer Island that we can all be proud of.

If not now, when?

Sincerely new MI resident, parent (of two 6th graders), husband and dog owner,

David Hetzel

Jon H March 27, 2012 at 02:48 PM
David - I share the same feelings. We recently moved to the Island looking, in large part, to escape the ongoing failures of public schools in Seattle. Seattle has spend piles of money with little to show in terms of actual results, on top of huge accountability problems. On the other hand Mercer Island schools have a tradition of excellence and have proven to be efficient stewards of the public's money. It is in everyone's interest on the island to invest in the schools. We could have purchased a lot more (better condition) house for the money a few exits down I-90 and still had access excellence schools. Others who are considering moving to Mercer Island will be making similar decisions. Does anyone think our property can continue to command a premium with over-crowded facilities that make it increasingly harder for teachers to provide the sort of instruction we expect? Those that oppose the bond on the grounds that there is a better (cheaper) solution are not fully considering the cost of delay. If interest rates start moving up, this delay could result in a lesser project costing the same. This is not intended to be a scare tactic, it is a simple fact that rates are as low as ever and the probability is that they will at some point start to rise.
Jon H March 27, 2012 at 03:01 PM
continued.... For interest rates, when and how fast are the key variables here and people in the community are sharp enough (thanks to good education) to understand the effects of compounding interest. Once the bonds are sold the rate is fixed and if I understand correctly there is some room for adjusting the schedule of the sales to lock in lower rates in a rising interest rate scenario. To the 4-1-1 supporters - I think the challenge with that plan can be summarized as: * Land This is an Island. They are making more of it. The current parcels that could support a 4th school and be obtained in a relatively short period of time do not exist. I personally think the 4th school would be logical, if we lived in the Midwest and could just bulldoze a corn field. * Demographics Right now the demographics show an increasing trend. Beyond 5 years it is hard to know. It seems that the likely increase in population would come from more development and sub-division. Will that increase the student population? Maybe. Will light rail increase the population? Probably not. We could just as easy see fewer students entering school over the coming 15 years. It seems like demographics alone cannot justify the additional facilities.
Jon H March 27, 2012 at 03:05 PM
continued... * Cost I recently saw some comment that the $450K annual overhead cost for a 4th school was overblown. I was surprised it was so low. Ignore the manpower implications and just look at operations and maintenance. The extra facility will present a new cost in upkeep of the building and site as well as a host of other costs that are a consequence of an additional facility. When you take that and apply the impact in terms of staffing, it is even more apparent that the 4-1-1 is a more costly option.
Jon H March 27, 2012 at 03:06 PM
correction... * Land This is an Island. They are NOT making more of it.
David de Yarza March 27, 2012 at 04:06 PM
I don't disagree. Lets solve the problem and rebuild our schools. But we have to do it right. The current plan has inaccurate numbers. 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 at the bottom of page 13 of the very document used as a guideline for this bond. Without more extensive costing, what are we going to be value engineering out of the projects? Could be something you care about. Read it for yourself on the district's website: http://www.misd.k12.wa.us/board/agenda/documents/21CFPC%20Rec%2009-26-11-FINALa.pdf Lets do our homework a bit better and come back with a better plan.
Jon H March 27, 2012 at 04:53 PM
David Y - So if I understand your objection it is inaccurate numbers in the 21CPC document? And so given that concern I think you are looking for some additional assurance that the bond provides enough funding to ensure the scope will not be reduced due to lack of funds? So voting "no" and getting some more detailed engineering/design estimates is the course you propose to ensure that the schools meet every stated requirement with no concern for falling short... aka the 'better plan'. If this is indeed what you support, then I would like to understand how you rationalize the following: * What is the likelihood that a larger bond would be approved if further study revealed that need? * What is the probability that we will miss low interest rates and also incur additional costs for construction due to rising prices? * What features do we think will get scoped out? * Actual detail planing is part of the bond. It costs money. Where do you propose these funds come from if the bond is not passed? A general note - if someone has the construction costs for elementary and middle schools built in Western WA over the past 2-3 years it would be great to understand the variability of those costs to understand the risk of the estimates proposed in the bond.
David de Yarza March 27, 2012 at 05:11 PM
Hi Jon, The numbers in the 21st CPC recommendation are not inaccurate, they are just a baseline reference for the purposes of comparing option A to option B. The recommendation calls for "extensive independent costing before putting a bond proposal before the public." My beef is not with the numbers. That kind of conceptual estimating is what is always done. The "extensive costing" is not something that would cost millions of dollars and years to achieve. That is how it is normally done. For example: The Community Center at the north end of the island was proposed as a large sum bond with little detail. It failed. The city came back with a schematic design and a better (lower) budget. A scale model of the proposal made the rounds, residing at several public places for weeks if not months. The second bond was drafted with the bette understanding of the project and it came in for less money, and of course, it passed. (Continued)
David de Yarza March 27, 2012 at 05:13 PM
(Continued from above) Ultimately, I do not believe it was about the bond amount. People on this island like to be informed, and if you can show them how something makes sense, they will support it. I do not know about the interest rates, and that is a good point. It would have been better to be working on a plan now to put on an upcoming ballot than spend this time bickering back and forth. Features sure to be scoped out are any that would make the building more economical over it's lifecycle. Ground source heating and cooling for example. More expensive to begin with, cheaper over the long run. Always gets the axe. Just an example. If the district can afford to buy Stevenson's for $5M regardless of the outcome of the vote, they can afford to bring a design concept to the schematic stage. I will see if I can dig out the costs of all the public schools we have built in the last few years. Thanks. These are all good questions.
David de Yarza March 27, 2012 at 05:34 PM
Jon, I checked with one of our estimators. The 21st CPC board recommendation, linked un my previous comment above, calls out an average of $324 /square foot for new school construction vs. $265 /square foot for remodel. We have built many public schools over the last few years, and the true as-built cost range is as follows: Elementary schools: $195 to $265 /square foot. Middle & High Schools: $210 to $295 /Square foot. I strongly believe that with more detail in place, the true estimate would come down in price. These are not scientific numbers, but rather a quick recall on the range of the last few years, done by someone who does this all day long for a living.
Jon H March 27, 2012 at 07:21 PM
Here is a report that I came across. It has some great analysis. http://www.peterli.com/spm/pdfs/SPM-Construction-Report.pdf My take away from skimming the report is that the cost escalation trend is such that taking time perfecting a plan costs more than moving forward. The reality is that the end result will not change significantly. It isn't as if the school board is going to decided to build a golf course instead of a school. I might feel different in the case of a high school where lab and topic specific spaces become more critical. I'm still interested in finding a school by school summary of the local construction to get a real apples to apples. General $/sqft stuff doesn't really address the root of my inquiry.
David de Yarza March 27, 2012 at 08:15 PM
Hi Jon, That is a good report, thanks for posting that link. The cost / square foot illustrated for our region is very much in line with what I posted above. Those figures are actual cost ranges of recent projects in this state and not just general, but maybe I misunderstood the question. Interestingly, the report you link shows Middle Schools being more expensive than High Schools. This is due to the fact that High Schools tend to be larger, but with very similar systems, therefore the cost gets somewhat more spread out over the area. As for perfecting a plan being more expensive than moving ahead, that just has not been my experience, and even if the difference is minimal, the quality of the end result is what really benefits. Again, that is just my experience, and just one way to do it, that I happen to be advocating. But there is more than one way to do things. I'd just like to point out that this is a great example of informed debate the like of which I'd hope our community would engage in, so thanks for that.
Jon H March 28, 2012 at 05:24 AM
Yes, I get that your cost ranges are in-line with the region. But, I'd like to see the actual line item level detail for a give school (cost, size, site, community, etc). Matching the variables to better represent the likely design should yield a very solid estimate. From that I would be surprised if the total cost for replacement here varied more than 15% (excluding some y/y cost escalation). This is not a science project and we don't have to invent new technology to bring these buildings to completion. The schedule proposed for the current bond will include design phase that will bring together the community for the final specs. While I can appreciate that you have maybe have experienced projects that cost more when requirements are not fully locked down at the outset, but when have you ever done detailed specs and planning before sponsorship has provided the approval to proceed? I also see Parkinson's law taking hold if this fails and the actual timelines will slip by the time a second measure is put forward. And same to you for keeping this debate constructive. :)

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