School Board to ask citizens for $196 million for new schools

It was standing room only at Thursday night’s School Board meeting, as citizens, school supporters, people on the fence, teachers and the curious crammed into the Mercer Island School District’s board room to see if at long last the board of directors would reach a decision as to what to place before voters in April.

The Mercer Island School District will ask voters on April 17 to approve a single bond proposition of $196,275,000 to replace the Island’s three aging elementary schools and Islander Middle School.

The board approved the sale of bonds by a vote of four to one.

Superintendent Gary Plano pointed out that the bonds approved in the 1990s will retire in the next three years, which will lessen the blow to taxpayers.

The finalized plan looks like this: The district will develop a master plan for what is referred to as the mega-block, which is home to the high school, stadium, administration building and transportation fleet. The transaction to purchase land near City Hall for buses is off the table. Superintendent Gary Plano said the site has been determined “inadequate,” so the district is exercising its right to cancel the transaction.

Instead, part of this bond proposal will be to acquire land for a sixth school. The district will not pigeonhole a sixth school to be an elementary school; rather, whatever is needed as attendance swells, or as board member Pat Braman said, “when we see the whites of their eyes.”

This bond proposition will include rebuilding all three elementary schools in two-story configurations and rebuilding IMS, all on each school’s existing campus.

The district also plans to modernize six to 12 classrooms at the high school, primarily to add materials science and robotics, which MIHS is lacking and needs to remain competitive, said board member Adair Dingle.

The bond will also devote $2.5 million to upgrade the stadium to include a new press box, bathrooms — which were referred to several times as “gross” — a new concession area and extension of the roof. Finally, approximately $2 million will be devoted to capital improvements to Mary Wayte Pool to extend its life by 10-15 years. Plano said the city has agreed to extend its interlocal agreement with the district for 10 years on the pool.

The district would not sell all the bonds at once. Executive director of business services, Dean Mack, said the project would be spread over six to eight years, selling bonds in increments as the funds are needed.

If the proposition is passed, the first new school would most likely open in the fall of 2015.

Assuming this scenario, on a home with an assessed valuation of $1 million, this would mean an additional $900 in annual property taxes for the homeowner, or $2.47 per day.

The board got an earful, though, from citizens and each other.

Al Tyrrill, whose two children graduated from MIHS, suggested repurposing the North Mercer campus for a fourth elementary school and building a new wing onto IMS, where Geoff Spelman said the district, at a minimum, needed to come up with a plan for the mega-block, something he said was discussed during the planning for the Boy and Girls Club, or PEAK.

“This seems ad-hoc to me,” Spelman said. “I don’t get it. I don’t get the rush. Take a breath.”

But Cliff Sharples, who sees the overcrowding every day as the president of the Lakeridge Elementary PTA, said the capacity issue really is a crisis. Plano agreed.

“This forward-thinking plan is to modernize our facilities over the next 50 years,” he said.

Perhaps the most compelling testimony came from Lakeridge Elementary student Brennan Hodgins, who addressed the board as competently as any adult. He said there are 28 kids in his classroom, and described how some don’t make it to the bathroom in the time allotted, which is “embarrassing.” Hodgins said they have lunch in three shifts due to the overcrowding, which doesn’t give them much time to eat, and in his accelerated math class, several students have to sit at computer stations, which is a distraction to learning. The youngster earned a round of applause.

The Committee for Mercer Island Public Schools (CMIPS) co-chair, Carrie George, also weighed in. CMIPS will be the body that campaigns for the bond proposition. George said the committee is well aware of the pressure of the April 17 date, but it is prepared.

“Waiting a year to solve the crisis makes no sense,” George said.

She said when compared to some of the new schools in Issaquah and Bellevue, for example, Mercer Island schools are not competitive.

Board member Dave Myerson was the only member to vote against this proposal. He is still of the opinion that a fourth elementary school should be built now, based on research that smaller elementary schools are better for educating children.

“Yes, it’s urgent, but the fastest way to remove the portables is to build a fourth elementary,” Myerson said.

He agreed that the existing three elementary schools should be re-built, but would not back down on building a fourth elementary first.

Braman calmed things down by shifting the conversation to demographics, and the fact that people are still coming to the Island.

“I believe that the planets have all lined up,” Braman said. “With the lowest interest rates possible and contractors ready, willing and able. If we should find a piece of property, it’s the best possible legacy we can give to our kids.”


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