School Board weighs how many, how much

One bond or two? Three elementary schools or four? Proceed with property acquisition near City Hall for buses or not?

These are just a few key decisions the Mercer Island School District Board of Directors are grappling with as the board nears a decision on what to place on an April ballot.

The board met Sunday for their semiannual retreat, which had been rescheduled from Thursday due to inclement weather. About 25 people turned out to listen in to the lively debate.

Board president Janet Frohnmayer opened the meeting by stating that even if there wasn’t the capacity issue, the district needs to be looking at new facilities due to the age of the present buildings. She pointed out that this is an excellent time to be borrowing money and putting contracts out to bid.

Dean Mack, the executive director of business services for the district, presented enrollment numbers by schools to demonstrate the overcrowding issue. Currently Island Park Elementary, designed for 450 students, has 550 kids. Lakeridge Elementary, designed for 425, has 600; West Mercer, designed for 475, has 670; and Islander Middle School, intended to house 750 students, has 1,007.

The three elementary school principals addressed the board on their thoughts on school size. Rich Mellish, principal at West Mercer, said 670 kids are not unmanageable. He has four teachers per grade. Nancy Loorem, the principal at Island Park, said since Mercer Island is such a tight-knit community, students progress as a cohort. She said matching kids with teachers is easier when you have four teachers per grade level as opposed to three. Fred Rundle, the principal at Lakeridge Elementary, said with a larger elementary school it is also easier to fund projects and maintain staffing to include, for example, a full-time P.E. teacher.

The flip side, Rundle said, is the social factors are easier with fewer kids.

Building a fourth elementary school v. rebuilding the existing three with greater capacity continues to muddy the conversation. Mellish said with a larger student population, he envisions an assistant principal or dean of students so he could use his time in a more targeted manner. Superintendent Gary Plano said with schools of 650 or more, he would recommend administrative support.

Myerson believes that the  schools should be smaller.

He cited empirical evidence about school size that found, “(schools) serving economically and socially heterogeneous or relatively advantaged students should be limited in size to about 500 students … while those secondary schools serving economically and socially heterogenous or relatively advantaged students should be limited in size to about 1,000 students.”

If three elementary schools are built on the present sites, the capacity would be about 600, with leeway for a few more. Under a four-school scenario, average student population would be about 450. Plano said with pre-school added to the elementary equation, 650 is tops.

Loorem said that in a time of declining enrollment, closure of a school is “traumatic and difficult.” She has been there, she said, in a situation in Bellevue.

“It would be better to have three that can adjust to the ebb and flow,” she said.

Myerson said, as a parent, he prefers the structure of the principal being the only administrator between him and the teacher. Rundle said he looks at an assistant principal situation as more of a team effort. Regardless, Rundle said enthusiastically, he’ll deal with any school that’s brand new.

Then there’s the money. Mack presented an outline of overhead costs, which reports that each time the district decides to operate a larger school rather than build an additional school, they would save approximately 75 percent in overhead costs.

In the case of an elementary, the 75 percent savings would be $446,125, the report states. Mack said with small schools, inefficiencies are built into the system.

Plano said he believes three elementary schools with 650 students is what they should shoot for, but scout for a fourth school site for when it is needed.

“We have 650 kids on this Island now that are not in an ideal learning environment,” said board member Pat Braman, referring to the kids in portables. “I strongly advocate for three schools now.”

Braman also brought up the recent state supreme court decision that the state is not meeting its constitutional duty to provide a basic public education to all children in Washington.

“The state may go back and re-define basic education,” she said. “We have to be very careful with the dollars and how we spend them.”

The board is also considering a three-plus option, where a fourth school would look very different, with perhaps special programs and room for expansion. Regardless of what decision is reached, it would be the fall of 2016, maybe 2015 before a new school is open if a bond is passed in April. One thing everyone on the board agrees on is that there is a capacity crisis right now, which is compromising the education of the students.

The topic of real estate acquisition was discussed in executive session, but the land that the district was looking at buying for relocation of the transportation fleet may not be a done deal.

“We’re having discussions around the due diligence process to determine if the site adequately meets the district’s needs,” Mack said.

One got the sense, though, that there are other real estate considerations on the table.

Then there’s the question of asking voters for the entire package in one bond in April, or splitting the vote into two bonds.

Splitting the bond doesn’t address the immediate overcrowding issue, since the first vote would only cover land acquisition, rebuilding Islander Middle School and planning for the three elementary schools. Also on the bond would be planning for upgrading six to 12 classrooms at the high school, modernizing Mary Wayte Pool and creating a master plan for the high school mega-block. This option (A) would be about $90 million. Option B, would include land acquisition, rebuilding IMS, rebuilding the three elementary schools, upgrading of the six to 12 high school classrooms, mainly for up-to-date science labs, creating a master plan for the mega-block, which is necessary to address the very old buildings on the north part of the mega-block that house day care facilities and Youth Theatre Northwest, and upgrading or possible relocation of the stadium. Also in option B is modernizing the pool. The price tag on option B is about $199 million.

Carrie George, co-chair of CMIPS (Committee for Mercer Island Public Schools), said the committee is ready to roll.

“I think we’re prepared for an April bond,” George said. “CMIPS feels very strongly it should be on one bond. The committee would be very distressed with a year delay.”

George said, the more detail, the better, for CMIPS to sell the bond to the public.

The board continues this discussion on Thursday night at 7 p.m. It has set the end of January as a deadline to craft what will be presented to voters. Thursday night’s meeting, in the board room, is open to the public.

History lesson

Most of Mercer Island’s public schools were rebuilt in 1995. The land where the MI Community  and Event Center now sits used to be owned by the school district. The ‘North Mercer’ building, now leased to YTN, was once part of a middle school there.

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