Community conflicted about direction on new schools bond issue

Citizens, students and educators packed the Mercer Island School District’s board room on Thursday night, for the latest in an ongoing discussion on what a bond for new schools might look like.

Interestingly, when the public input and conversation on facilities was concluded, the room cleared out to just four people, plus the board.

Board member Pat Braman quipped that apparently citizens trust them with decisions on how to best educate students, but not the windows in a new school.

It’s clear citizens are getting anxious for a clear direction on what will be presented to voters in April.

“I personally believe now is the time for the board to come to a decision,” said parent Lisa Spencer. “One solution needs to be made, then you all can go back to the content of education, not facilities.”

However, resident Michael Finn said the process was moving too fast. He stated that the major issue is capacity, which is a known factor with 600 kids in portables and the projected demographic trend for more kids on the Island, but he thought more quantitative support was needed regarding the 21st Century Facilities Planning Committee report.

Amanda Clark, who was on the committee, couldn’t disagree more with Finn. In another hotly contested piece of the puzzle — whether to rebuild the three elementary schools into three bigger schools on the same site, or build a fourth school on a new, yet to be determined site — Clark said it was her opinion that there is no land available on the Island for a fourth school, and she was bothered by the distraction of looking for a site.

“Voters will not want to find a pig in a poke,” Clark said.

Also of concern to those who chose to speak publicly, is whether or not to ask voters to consider one bond in April and another next year, or just one big bond in April.

Clark and fellow 21st CFPC Toby Suhm support one bond now. Suhm also supported the three elementary schools approach.

“There is no land identified or available for a fourth school,” Suhm said. “It doesn’t make sense when the schools are so overcrowded now.”

But the former facilitator of the 21st CFPC, Kris Kelsay, was the most passionate about her beliefs. Speaking as a citizen and not a facilitator, Kelsay was almost shaking as she delivered her three-minute missive.

“I’m not in support of a four-one-one configuration; I would actively oppose it,” she said. “There’s no feasible property — it doesn’t exist.”

Kelsay said the commercial property downtown is tax-based, whereas schools are not, and the community needs the income. She said even if a piece of property “miraculously appeared,” it would be more expensive to run four (elementary) schools than three due to more costs for teachers, administration and utilities. She also emphasized that enrollment is cyclical, and a fourth school could end up shuttered down the road if enrollment dropped.

Kelsay went so far as to say the board would be irresponsible if they attempted to go after a fourth site for a new elementary school. She said it should be a simple process, with one bond.

Board president Janet Frohnmayer said it would be helpful to weigh the cost of staff for a fourth school because if the three new elementary schools are considerably larger, they might be looking at hiring assistant principals. Board vice president Adair Dingle referenced an elementary school so large it actually had to have a dean of students.

Like Dingle, board member Dave Myerson also doesn’t like the idea of mega-elementary schools. He said he wasn’t impressed with the new schools they toured in other districts — they were too big for his taste.

“There is an urgency to getting more capacity in our elementary schools,” Dingle said.

For that reason she, too, is leaning toward one bond. Myerson wasn’t particularly concerned if they run one bond or two, but rather the school configuration.

Youth Theatre Northwest advocates were also at the meeting to express their concern over being given enough time to move from their current home on the North Mercer campus, which has been deemed unsafe and should be torn down. Manny Cawaling, the theater’s executive director, said they are moving forward with their plans, just as the district is, but he hoped the district would give them time to find a new home.

The facilities discussion will continue Jan. 22, when the board meets for its semiannual retreat in the board room from 12:30 to 4 p.m.


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