Listening to a proposal to rebuild some or all of Mercer Island's elementary and middle school buildings last week, local resident Rick Bayley spoke up from the audience of about 60 people and warned the group that local history, as he saw it, might repeat itself.
"I'm supportive of your goal," he said. "But what I question is the salesmanship. We don't trust our politicians."
Bayley was one of several who voiced concern at a public meeting organized by the 21st Century Planning Committee (21 CFPC) at . The committee is a panel of 22 volunteer members from across the community, called on by the to come up with a plan to house the school district's students for the next 50 years and if necessary, ask local voters for an increase in taxes to pay for school construction bonds.
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 ().
In order to meet the needs of local students, 21 CFPC facilitator and local resident Kris Kelsay said the MISD gave the panel a "clean slate" in coming up with a plan to review the uses of the district's aging school buildings.
The group has been : They've met at least a half-dozen times in public since it was formed in June last year and has visited several schools and local businesses who may be affected by possible changes.
"This committee has been very diligent and thorough," Kelsay said. "This is a pretty comprehensive information-focused group."
At the Sept. 6 meeting, she described two master-plan approaches that would rebuild all of Mercer Island's schools — and possibly even add a fourth elementary school. With bond rates at record lows and the repayment of older bonds set to conclude in the next five years, Kelsay said the panel was considering a larger-sized bond to tackle rebuilding the elementary and middle school buildings first, but wanted to keep a lower-cost option on the table (click here to see how Mercer Island compares with other school district tax levies based on per $1,000 of assessed value).
"This group wanted to keep tax rates constant, and a bigger bond gives us more flexibility," she said. "It's the best buy for Mercer Island taxpayer, to do the bigger bond."
Mercer Island voters have historically been very supportive of school funding, even voting to raise taxes on themselves and the rest of the state last year to . But school construction bonds seen as too large or for not the right reasons have gone down in defeat: In 1970, as MISD school enrollment was peaking at around 5,500 students, voters shot down a bond to build a second high school. And 20 years later voters again rejected a $50 million construction bond to remodel four of five schools and rebuild Lakeridge Elementary school. They later approved several smaller bonds to renovate local schools that combined was much more than the original $50 million bond.
Reviewing enrollment projections, programming needs and space limitations of current MISD property, the panel made several key findings:
- Overcapacity now: Elementary and Middle School buildings are on average 31 percent beyond capacity.
- Overcapacity will worsen: 4,486 students are predicted by 2015 — a student body about 7 percent larger than the current school year and likely exceeding the maximum capacity of portables permitted by law.
- Not enough room to teach: School principals say they are making significant facility-related programmatic compromises today.
- School buidlings are nearing end of designed lifespan: All of Mercer Island's schools are 47-58 years old, and were remodeled 14-17 years ago.
- New schools must be built two-stories on current properties: No feasible school-sized properties are available for purchase.
- Equality: School enrollment sizes must be similar in size and a new school with a K-8 format is not an option.
"The MISD facilities are well maintained and in good condition," said Kelsay. "There's no reason to tear them down because they're in bad shape."
At the public forum last week, the 21 CFPC panel brought forward four possible funding options (see below) to fulfill their mandate of providing a 50-year master plan. They plan to present a recommendation to the Mercer Island School Board in the next few weeks, possibly before October.
Some of the comments were focused on funding priorities, some on traffic concerns, but several pointed comments focused on the school district's history of trying to build newer, better schools and the political process behind it.
"My concern is you have a tremendous PR problem with those of us that wanted bigger schools 15 years ago," said a 69-year-old resident who refused to give his name.
"Well, the answer now is to build more flexible spaces in schools," Kelsay said.
The man remained unpersuaded, saying the MISD may have the answers the public needs, but must give the process a higher level of visibility.
"There's a lot of people walking around this town that thinks you're all nuts," he said. "People out there don't know what's going on."Name Configuration Cost Capacity Issue Best Practice School Susequent bond need Description Option 'A' 3-1-1 $157-$177M Complete by 2018 68% of students New High School bond within 25 years New larger schools are built on current properties while school is in session over next 5-6 years. Option 'B' 3-1-1 $157-$177M Complete by 2019 68% of students New High School bond within 25 years New IMS is built first then old IMS is used as a swing school as new elementary schools are rebuilt Option 'C' 3-1-1 $90-$120M Solves K-5 capacity issues by 2016; Leaves 300+ kids in portables at IMS 43% of students New IMS bond within 5-10 years; New High School bond within 25 years Three new elementary schools built on current properties while school is in session Option 'D' 4-1-1 $94-$106M Solves 6-8 capacity issue by 2017; Leaves over 100+ elementary kids in portables 37% of students New bond for 3 Elementary Schools within 5-10 years; New High School bond within 25 years Fourth elementary school is built on North Mercer Campus and new IMS