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School Building Panel Gauges Public Support for Bond Options

The 21st Century Facilities Planning Committee heard concerns Sept. 6 on four possible bond options from the public in a bid to maintain school district buildings and infrastructure over the next 50 years.

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
Kris Kelsay September 15, 2011 at 10:20 AM
As the facilitator of the 21st Century Facilities Committee, I go on record as stating that this article does not in any way accurately represent the public input meeting that was held last week. To quote only a single “69-year-old resident that refused to give his name” and represent his opinion as the sole opinion at this meeting, is both inaccurate and irresponsible. The meeting, in fact, was a wonderful display of community process that I was proud to be a part of. At the meeting, I saw 50+ residents engaging in respectful, interesting, positive, and enlightening dialog. The residents I heard at the meeting valued education and were there to get informed, learn about the potential future of our facilities and offer their voice in the process. I am disappointed in Kendall Watson’s decision to run this biased story and strongly encourage the public to get the facts directly from the source as our School Board hears the citizen’s panel recommendation and determines what course of action they will take. --Kris Kelsay
Kendall Watson September 15, 2011 at 05:39 PM
Thanks for your comments, Kris. I take exception in particular to your observation that I only quote an unnamed 69-year-old resident, which you call "Inaccurate and irresponsible". First, there are two citizens quoted in the story — in addition to yourself. Prior to the quote you found objectionable, I also paraphrased several of the citizen comments in the sentence beginning: "Some of the comments were focused on funding priorities, some on traffic concerns…" This in no way makes a declaration that majority or minority felt this way, but "several" did indeed raise questions about the commitment of a large amount of public money toward rebuilding public schools. That is what I heard. I would strongly agree with you that the comments were respectful, engaging and enlightening, but it wasn't always positive as you state. Yes, City Council Candidate Debbie Bertlin and a local mom (and Patch contributor) Tana Senn spoke positively of supporting the investment of new schools. Myra Lupton urged the panel to rebuild the elementary schools first. But there were also several responses that I would objectively assert were less than positive: Attila Laszlo said "There's a lot of angst and aggravation. Things were rammed down our throats with PEAK" Linda Tepper of Country Village Day School said the redevelopment of the North Mercer property would be detrimental to working families on the island. There were several others who raised concerns, rather than universal praise.
Kris Kelsay September 15, 2011 at 11:11 PM
Kendall, Thank you for the response and in retrospect, perhaps I was too harsh in the comment. I'm not arguing that the comments at the meeting were positive--in fact, I that's not what the committee was seeking. They wanted to know the "hot buttons" of associated with each of the options on the table to validate their own discussion and feelings--and I think they definitely heard them. As you now state in your reply--the comments were broad ranging covering all of topics you would expect. Comments included feelings about PEAK and adding a school at North Mercer; overcrowding woes in the elementary schools; educational philosophy; hopes to keep our South Mercer fields contiguous; disappointment in having to wait for a new high school for 15-25 years and much more. I just wanted the public to be clear that the meeting was a healthy, thoughtful discussion that was respectful in tone--and exactly what the committee was seeking in holding it. I'm not sure that was the take-away of the article. Thank you for including a broader set of comments in your response.
Kendall Watson September 16, 2011 at 06:18 PM
Kris, Totally no worries. I'm grateful you responded & I think our conversation has actually made this a better & more informative piece. One error I did make, however, was not offering readers how to forward their ideas and concerns about these options for building new schools, before the committee makes their recommendation to the school board. That email address is: 21CFPC_Feedback@misd.wednet.com.
Frank Morrison September 16, 2011 at 08:19 PM
Good grief, people, this is just barely the start of the process. The citizens' committee has yet to report to the board. The truly public part of the process isn't yet in place. It will be. A few of you took advantage of a public forum opportunity early in the process. It will help those of us on the study committee. It will not control us, nor the full board and the Island process that follows. Take from the session that the need is clear. We have more than a full school housed in prtables. We are teaching in hallways. Two of our three elementaries are running three lunches, restricting PE space. The problem is real; the solutions are many. Pick a solution and work for it; don't deny there is a problem. Don't feel a need to assign blame. There is none. We are the victims of our own success. People want to come here, live here, bring their children here, for our schools. So be it. It is the driver for our property values. You benefit, even if you do not have a child in our schools. I preach to the choir. MI gets it. Only a few don't. Watson seems to have not. Alas, but we have courses down at the Community Center. They are cheap. That should be appealing to him. It is unfair to think it just money. He is just wrong, as well, in my experience. Now, if we could just joust resumes, all would be well! Frank Morrison
Kendall Watson September 16, 2011 at 11:36 PM
Thanks for the on-point comments, Frank. Granted, you're unquestionably the expert on putting together bonds and levies in the past. And, as I noted, Mercer Island voters go out of their way to support education-dedicated initiatives in the past. But I also noted that they don't always pass. And some of the comments and concerns I heard last week were echoed in several previous 21 CFPC presentations. My job in this is to report — not decide — on what happens at your meetings and presentations and provide some context and background. I reported on what you've determined (problem exists, as you explain), some of the options you're considering (put bonds of varying sizes on ballot), and some of the public feedback you got (some positive, some pessimistic i.e. the proposed bond might not get 60 percent approval to pass). Perhaps it might be informative to ask, what is different now compared with 1990, when the bond to refurbish all the schools and rebuild Lakeridge failed?
Ira B. Appelman September 17, 2011 at 05:58 AM
Dear Kendall, Please don’t be bullied by the anti-democratic forces in our community. Most of your article presents the information that MISD wants us to hear, which is great. You also present some reservations, which is also great. I was taught at MIHS that the burden is on those advocating a proposal (21CFPC) to prove their case, and I believe they should be held to that burden. This is just the beginning of the process. Please don’t censor your articles because those in authority demand it. We don’t need another online version of Mercer Island Distorter propaganda. As you saw, when you stood up to bullying, they backed off, but I trust they will continue to work on you off-line to make sure you "get it." In a Democracy, the public needs to hear more information and multiple points of view so it can make sound decisions. Please be aware that many in our community believe we live in a Republic, not a Democracy, and all the public needs is the minimal information required to prepare for the changes to come.
Islander September 18, 2011 at 11:36 PM
Just curious... The Reporter stated that rebuilding the middle school would NOT be considered any longer at the North Mercer campus. However, in your article it is stated in Option B and D to rebuilt IMS at the north mercer campus. quote from Reporter: "The committee has determined a few key factors. First, a middle school will not be constructed at or near the high school. All of the new elementary schools will be two stories. Field space must be considered at each location. The leased buildings will also be considered part of the land available." So, my question is...is it still a viable option for IMS to be rebuilt at the North Mercer campus?
Kendall Watson September 19, 2011 at 12:31 AM
We don't claim IMS could be rebuilt at the N. Mercer property. From our story: Option B - "New IMS is built first then old IMS is used as a swing school as new elementary schools are rebuilt" Option D - "Fourth elementary school is built on North Mercer Campus and new IMS" I can see how you might be confused by the Option D description, which is taken directly from the 21 CFPC Sept. 6 community update document. But earlier in the story, I wrote that there is no K-8 school on the table, so it doesn't make sense to infer that an elementary and IMS will be built on the N. Mercer property. I hope that clears up the confusion.

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