First step is taken toward new schools

The 21st Century Planning Committee, volunteers charged by the Mercer Island School District Board of Directors to come up with a plan to replace the Island’s aging schools, made their recommendation to the board on Thursday night at a special public meeting.

Now, it is up to the board to decide which plan to run with, and present it to the public before placing a bond on a future ballot.

Overcrowding is now a reality at Mercer Island schools, particularly at the elementary level. Currently, about 600 kids are in portables, mainly at West Mercer — enough to fill a new school.

The majority of the committee, which has met for a total of 150 hours, supports building three new elementary schools on the properties that the three schools are on now. To build a fourth elementary school means finding property to build on. The committee agrees that a six-plus acre site is needed — and there are not many of those available on the Island. A fourth elementary school would likely have to be an urban school, if that’s even possible.

Committee member Toby Suhm said the real issue of finding a new site is that it would delay the process, because even if they found a piece of land, it wouldn’t be without raising tremendous public issues.

Sequencing is another issue — where to put kids while schools are being built. The committee had no clear recommendation on how to make this easiest on the students, but some members support building the new Islander Middle School on the IMS track as the first school, then utilizing the old IMS school as a swing school while new elementary schools are built on their existing sites. Others support using Lakeridge Elementary as the swing school to alleviate the loss of the IMS track and field.

Most school districts, the report states, do not have the luxury of a swing school, so building in place while school is in session is not uncommon, although some of the committee and board members thought the noise would affect students.

While there is no disagreement that all of the district’s buildings are becoming obsolete for 21st century learning, there are other fears, earthquakes being one of them. Committee member Frank Morrison said the remodeling done to the buildings in the ’90s lacks adequate lateral earthquake support by today’s codes.

Several members of the committee are engineers. They echoed Morrison’s concerns about earthquakes. They agreed that with more knowledge of the geology of the Puget Sound area, and given the earthquake in Japan, it’s a real wake-up call. With a fault running through the middle of Mercer Island, upgrading the existing buildings for seismicity can be done, but it’s expensive. In fact, the committee found that you get 60 percent of the school for 80 percent of the cost with a remodel as opposed to building new.

Because of the age and infrastructure of the existing schools, the committee is recommending that the elementary schools and middle school be replaced within the next 10-12 years, and the high school in 20-30 years. In addition, it was strongly recommended that all the new schools be built to the standard required for an emergency shelter. Right now the only emergency shelter on the Island is the community center.

Regarding the North Mercer buildings, which includes Youth Theater Northwest, the report states that they will need to be demolished in the near future for safety reasons.

“The North Mercer buildings maybe have two to five years left,” Morrison said.

If there were a roof leak or some other major issue in any of the North Mercer buildings, they would come down. There is little support to use that space of the “mega-block” for another school. The mega-block is home to the high school, PEAK, the administration building and stadium. The mega-block needs to remain flexible to support the future high school, retain scarce field space and support future community partnerships, the report reads. The committee also recommended committing dollars now to begin planning a new MIHS on the mega-block.

The district’s current bonds pay off in three to five years. Most of the committee support a larger bond over a longer period of time, to fund the three elementary schools and IMS, giving the best value to Mercer Island taxpayers. Dean Mack, executive director of business services for the district, said a larger bond is more predictable and a better deal.

“It is predicted that economic recovery will be slow, three to five years,” Mack said.

He said it’s a good time to build new schools because construction costs are low.

Morrison said it’s time to bring the public in on the discussion. Suhm said his neighbors, whom he has talked to, who don’t have children in the district anymore, think the schools look good to them. But he also said that many seniors he knows do understand the need.

Kris Kelsay, the facilitator of the committee, said the district needs to launch a significant educational campaign soon, to bring the public up to speed on the many nuances of this project.

Although talk of what 21st century schools look like — with larger common spaces — not “cells and bells,” committee member Hillary Benson summed it up the best.

“The most resonating message is going to be about overcrowding,” she said.

Now it’s up to the board to decide how to proceed. Board member Brian Emanuels said that it would be best to get public input before the board throws a bond out to voters.


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