officials and school board members announced their intention to keep local voters "in the loop" with the online publication of information about a and updates on a proposed land deal at last Thursday's board meeting.
The MISD released its quarterly edition of the District News newsletter online to satisfy residents too hungry to wait for it's information on the bond to arrive by surface mail (click here to see the newsletter). Officials pledged the information contained would be fact-based and unbiased toward approving or rejecting it (see here for comprehensive school bond coverage on Mercer Island Patch).
Voters will also receive information about the bond issue, how it will appear on the ballot and proponents for and against the measure. Advocacy websites have sprung up on either side — supporters are located at http://mischoolsyes.org/, while those opposed to the bond are located at http://www.no-mi-school-tear-down.com/.
At the Thursday, March 8 meeting at , Superintendent Gary Plano read from a prepared statement titled "Land Acquisition Update", which detailed to buy the and the properties:
"Representatives from Mercer Island School District initiated an inquiry with representatives of Redeemer Lutheran Church about a potential sale to the school district in October of 2011. Since then the District has been in ongoing conversations with the Church and delivered an initial offer to them in late December of 2011. Although the District exchanged information with Church representatives about the potential sale of the property until February, of 2012, it acknowledges the sensitivity of selling Church property, which has been on Mercer Island for over 50 years as reported.
The Superintendent and CFO have made inquires this past week about continuing the on-going dialogue. However, no discussions have taken place. If the Church decides to maintain its present location, the District is committed to completing the purchase of the Stevenson property. Although the Stevenson property is too small to site a school, it does allow for a potential land swap with a property owner at some future time, should the District’s student population require additional classrooms."
Plano also reiterated that the land deal must be completed by August 2013.
School Board President Janet Frohnmayer clarified the board's March 1 decision to publicly annouce the "conversations" around the real estate offer.
"We made a decision to disclose our negotiations with the church, even though the final agreement has not been reached," she said. "And that's because we felt like being transparent and open with the community … And similarly, tonight, we are basically keeping you in the loop about what's going on. We feel it is important for you, the public, to be aware of this process."
Several School Board members also sought to weigh in over why the strategic purchase of land was needed, regardless of whether or not the Redeemer Lutheran Church property was purchased.
"Our intent in pursuing this transition was to be able to create a location where we could put an additional school, in light of the statement you just read, that is in jeopardy at this point," said Director Brian Emanuels. "However, we have a growing student population and an Island that is not growing. We have a long-term need for additional land for schools. Our desire is to proceed with this land acquisition and continue over a long-term, a search for additional land, wherever that may exist on the island. Ideally on the North End of the Island, where we have seen the largest student population growth. The intent of this statement is to say we remain committed to that, it leaves all possibilities open to what we might do in the future. Being able to acquire a very unique parcel of land, that's available now, is a great thing for Mercer Island, for the taxpayers, for the residents. That part of the transaction we are committed to, because it opens up possibilities for us down the road in dealing with expected population growth."
"This was one of the key recommendations of 21 CFPC, was the recognition that we as an Island have been built out," said Frohnmayer. "We as a school district — who in the past have sold land — we have a very restricted inventory of land. And so, it completely reduces our flexibility and ability to respond to changes in student population ... the Stevenson property is really an important step in creating more future possibilities."
President Tani Lindquist spoke during public comment period in favor of the bond, recognizing the impact state budget cuts have had on school and class sizes. Since 2007, the state has cut the MISD budget by approximately $4.2 million. The local teacher's union head said she wished for smaller schools and smaller class sizes, but couldn't envision how it could be paid for.
"In this current economic climate, neither is realistic," she said. "We've repurposed closets in our schools because some of our special education students need break out spaces. (Schools based on) 1950s construction wasn't thinking about autistic kids, wheelchair-disabled kids or those with sensory disorder. The question is, what is the reality here now? I would just love to have a facility that can handle the kids that are here now. I appreciate the board trying to create a realistic vision for us."
Ira Appelman, a frequent critic of elected officials and a self-described open government advocate, disputed accounts of how the school distict had to sell land — specifically land where the and the is located — to sustain programs and low class sizes in the past.
"The board said the land for PEAK was surplus. I don't think anyone there in the audience believed that ... It was obvious to us when we said don't build PEAK there."
Plano later said that the PEAK land was never officially deemed "surplus" and advanced planning for a new high school was taken into consideration when the location of the new Boys and Girls Club was determined.
The School Board will meet again on March 22 at 7 p.m. in the Mercer Island School District Administration building board room.