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School leaders to reflect, reboot
In a very decisive way, voters on Mercer Island sent a message last week, turning down the Mercer Island School District’s proposed bond measure.
According to results as of Monday, April 23, 59.45 percent of Islanders rejected the measure, while 40.55 percent voted yes.
The bond, which would have been for $196 million to rebuild three elementary schools and the middle school, along with a variety of other projects, had been the source of much discussion on the Island prior to the election. Approximately 57 percent of registered voters on the Island took part in the special election with 9,712 out of 16,953 voting. The election results will not be official until it is certified on April 27.
Superintendent Gary Plano said the district would spend some time reviewing and look forward to the next step.
“While we will be taking some time to digest the message we have received, we are keenly aware that our schools are overcrowded and more students are coming,” said the superintendent in a press release.
Last Thursday, the board held its last regular meeting of April in front of a packed room. The public comment period of the meeting, which has been popular since the board began discussing the bond, lasted for 45 minutes with nine speakers.
“This is not a happy day, not a happy result,” said Frank Morrison, a member of CMIPS, the volunteer group that helps promote bond issues. He went on to say the board should take a long look at what the voters said and take it into account when considering steps to move forward, but he said a bond failure is not the end of the world. It has happened in the past, and the district found a way to make things work.
Many of the speakers suggested that the district look into hiring a firm to professionally gather data from Islanders pertaining to the bond’s failure so they can have a better understanding of what to address moving forward.
“It failed, not due to a lack of support for education, but it needs an unanimous board approval and you need to engage the city,” said Ralph Jorgenson.
Prior to the board meeting, a study session was held with two architectural firms to gather information about creating educational specs for elementary and middle school buildings.
“We know at some point in the future we’re going to have to build new schools,” said Plano. “We don’t know when, but we will be building one of each.”
While a full design of a school building is an expensive undertaking, ed specs allow districts to gather information about what a building could include and look like. Ed specs can then later be used to create schematics for buildings. Several Islanders who spoke during public comment also sat through the study session and felt that was something the district should have done before the vote.
“Thank you for having the study group,” said Islander David de Yarza. “The bond didn’t fail because we don’t like education. The study group should have been done before.”
Others encouraged the board to sit back and reflect before making any decisions about the future.
“We think this should be a time to reflect on the long-term needs and create a plan,” said Geoff Spelman.
Members of the School Board, while obviously disappointed in the bond’s failure, agreed that having a professional look at why specifically it failed would help.
“I think we need to find out why the message of need was not conveyed,” said board member Adair Dingle. “I’ve been on the board for seven years, and we’ve worked on facilities for as long as I’ve been here. These decisions have not been rushed. Programs have space requirements they didn’t used to, and it would be wonderful to have a fourth school, but we don’t have the resources.”
“Clearly most of the community wasn’t aware of the issues,” said board president Janet Frohnmayer. “But perhaps the silver lining is that I don’t know if there is anyone who doesn’t know about it now. I’m horribly sad, but I enjoyed seeing Mercer Island learning together and it puts us in a good position to build from.”
The general consensus with the board was not to jump right back into putting another measure on the November ballot.
“I’m totally opposed to putting anything on the November ballot,” said board member Pat Braman. “I think we’re going to have a grueling national and state election, and I think that would take away from our message getting out.”
Others agreed, feeling now was the time to stop and listen before making any more decisions.
“Usually, I’m a very optimistic person, but I’m feeling very pessimistic. This is the fourth time we’re going back to the drawing board,” said Frohnmayer. “The bottom line is, in 2015 we run out of room for portables. A third of the population on Mercer Island has kids in the schools and maybe our reality is that we have to scale back our ambitions, not because we don’t want it, but because we can’t pay for it. We need to find out what is the community’s vision for schools, and maybe we have to make those hard choices. I feel like I’ve had a bit of a reality check.”
Board member Brian Emanuels, who served on the 21st Century Facilities Committee, said he really hoped the district doesn’t have to lower expectations.
“I hope we don’t have to lower our expectations, but we have to solve this problem. We have to change course and find a solution to meet our needs,” he said. “With the population growth on the North end and no school north of 40th Street, we have to engage the city to really vet our options. We need to get community feedback so we have a solution for the community to rally around.”
On May 21 the School Board has a meeting scheduled with the City Council, one of the annual meetings between the two groups. Several on the board hoped they would be able to seriously discuss with the city possible options for a North end school.
Prior to meeting with the City Council, the board will conduct a site visit on May 1 at Islander Middle School beginning at 8 a.m. The board will then return to the board room for a 12:30 p.m. regular meeting, scheduled to end at 3 p.m.
MISD schedules listening sessions
The Mercer Island School Board will be conducting several listening sessions with the community to learn more after the failure of the recent bond issue.
The Board of Directors will hold two sessions where the public is encouraged to come and speak to the board.
Depending on the number of participants, groups will be formed and facilitated by board members. Comments will be collected and made available to the entire community.
The first meeting will be held Tuesday, May 22, at 9:30 a.m. at PEAK and Thursday, May 24, at 7 p.m. in the multipurpose room at Islander Middle School.
For those who cannot attend in person, but would like to participate, the board has also invited citizens to email firstname.lastname@example.org. Messages will be forwarded to all board members.
Mr. Morrison was misidentified as a current CMIPS member. He is, at present, neither a member nor chair of CMIPS of this past campaign, and was not speaking for them. He spoke as a taxpayer, a property owner and a voter. The Reporter regrets the error.