Mercer Island needs new schools, say a group of community members, and the time to build them is now.
At a Sept. 29 Mercer Island School Board meeting, the 21st Century Facilities Planning Committee (21CFPC) for a phased "3-1-1" appoach: building three new two-story elementary schools and one middle school on their current properties to address school overcrowding and outdated buildings that don't support the district's vision. could then be rebuilt in a later phase.
"Our teachers are doing an incredible job … despite the facilities they are in," said 21CFPC facilitator Kris Kelsay, who led the 21CFPC process.
Thanking the panel for their work, Superintendent Dr. Gary Plano and school board members offered a standing ovation and formal certificates of gratitude for their work.
"You are an amazing model," Plano said. "This is how community action should follow."
The so-called Great Recession has taken it's toll as voters across the Puget Sound and occasionally have refused to fund new school construction. But a majority of the 21CFPC panel believe the time is right for Mercer Island to rebuild schools first built in the 1950s and 1960s. Based on the recommendation to rebuild all four schools in the first phase, a bond could cost anywhere between $157 million to $177 million.
Mercer Island's current school levy-rate in 2011 is $2.52 per $1,000 of assessed value, which works out annually to around $2,416 for the median single-family home (worth $958,800, ). The recommendation could, if paired with a bond described above, raise the school levy-rate to $3.42 per $1,000.
Ultimately, a decision on a final bond will be left to the school board to decide.
"The kinds of things we're taking into account is, it's predicted that our recovery is going to be very slow," said MISD Business Services Executive Director Dean Mack. "We can take advantage over 3-5 years of depressed construction prices and flexible interest rates."
While the panel produced a recommendation to school board on how to move forward, it also offered a number of alternate ideas for consideration. Directors Dave Myerson and Adair Dingle asked about a preferred a fourth elementary that was ruled out of the process because the panel recommended against using the North Mercer property — and shied away from serious consideration of swapping ownership of for the P-Patch area of or .
"We aren't elected," said 21CFPC member Morrison. "That would raise a lot of questions. That's the main issue between the 3-1-1 vs 4-1-1 (configuration): You use your existing properties or short of using eminent domain, or you buy land from someone else. I support this report I'm willing to go to the stump for it and willing to go to the voters for it but you have to decide what will fit voters best."
Director Brian Emanuels, who served as a 21CPFC member before he was , echoed the panel's concern that public input be actively sought.
"I think we need ample opportunity for the public to add to the process," he said.
Here are a selection of comments from individual members that highlight the work and diversity of opinion on planning for MISD's future schools.
Kris Kelsay (on the 21CPFC's diversity of community interests): "This group is a very diverse group. We have had some intense discussion. I think we've forged new relationships with people."
Carol Gullstad (on 21CPFC's diversity of community interests): "We do have different groups of people. We have volunteer groups of people who we asked 'what things that seem to stand out most?' (They said) overcrowding, property values, and safety."
Walt Ritchie (on balancing short-term and long-term requirements for school buildings) "The buildings meet the code of he 1950s and 1960s. But what has happened since then is we've had events that have changed the code. The 1995 code, for example, is very outdated ... The code tries to judge relative "seismicity" of Puget Sound. There is now a significant increase in the expectations."
Carrie George (on school facilities on Mercer Island): "It's important that the public understand that, within 20-30 years, all five of our schools will have to be rebuilt."
Frank Morrison (on school facility capacity targets): "If our committee has discomfort, it's the enforceability of the future. if you do have growth, that's where you should worry."
Einar Handeland (on raising facility capacity targets): "We need to think about the effects of other projects, such as when light rail comes on to I-90, and how they will affect our schools. We also need to consider how I-90 tolling, when it comes."
Bert Loosmore (on the question of whether to build three or four elementary schools): "The minority of the committee who want '4-1-1' (four elementary schools, one middle school and one high school) want (the choice of configuration) to come out of community process. It can't come from school board, we think."
Hilary Benson (on configuring larger elementary schools): "With the larger schools, it would probably be pretty important to divide schools — like the Bush School has done with an "Upper" and "Lower" school — into two different schools on the same property."
Amanda Clark (on redesigning school configuration): "I think the idea of flexibility is important. Cement block walls just can't be moved. One of the things for me, not having kids in schools, flexibility was something told to us over and over again that we need to have."
Megan Hand (on building "Best Practice" school facilities): "I see it first hand at Lakeridge (Elementary) because there isn't an art classroom. In 21st Century classrooms, we should have this. We see other school districts, like Bellevue building new schools with these facilities. We've got to stay competitive for these issues. Our home values are dependent on keeping up those schools."
Michael Finn (on advantages of using a "swing school" — representing a minority view and not a 21CPFC recommendation): "There's three advantages: You can develop the site the way you want without trying to shoehorn them in; You save money from lower construction costs; and there's less construction noise. Take a look at the (Aviara/Old Safeways) project in the Town Center. You notice the noise. I'd hate to be in school there."
Toby Suhm (on costs and bonding): "During our last meeting, I was actually surprised at the amount of support we were hearing. Elderly attendees were much more supportive than I has assumed … The (residents without kids) at the school that attended the last (Sept. 6) session were largely supportive. A lot of the concerns we heard were coming from younger adults."