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Deciding configuration of Mercer Island schools is Rubik’s Cube puzzle

During a two-and-a-half-hour study session on Thursday evening, the Mercer Island School District Board of Directors continued their discussion of the North Mercer Campus and planning for future schools and improvements. For the first time, the board took input from the public at the end of the meeting and heard from principals and teachers on the challenges facing them in their current buildings.

“I want to reiterate that these numbers are not bond numbers,” said MISD Superintendent Gary Plano at the beginning of the meeting. “This is to help us figure out what set of options we think the public should weigh in on. We’ve heard from Mary Jo at IMS that the $7.1 million budget option won’t work because they would need a bigger lunch room.”

If the district was to build a new elementary school, the middle school will need some work to make it big enough to house more students, as the building is already at capacity. One option is to build a new addition to add 14 classrooms, taking the place of the portables on the campus and adding a few new rooms. That option has a generalized price tag of $7.1 million, based on estimates from the architectural firm Mahlum. However, Islander Middle School principal Mary Jo Budzius told the board that simply adding 14 classrooms wouldn’t solve the building’s core issues, which is that there is simply not enough space in common areas.

“It doesn’t fix the space issues or solve the education issues we have now,” she said. “My gut reaction would be to not do anything and don’t spend $7.1 million on that. I have a hard time spending voters’ money on something that doesn’t solve the problem.”

Currently, the school has just over 1,000 students in a building designed to hold 875 students. Due to the increased number of students, the school operates three lunches, one of 320 students and two with 350 students, in a lunch room that can’t fit them all at the same time. Another issue, Budzius outlined, is that sixth-grade students now have a split class — they go to class for 20 minutes, then go to lunch, followed by the rest of the class. The schools gym can hold 650 students, meaning that only half of the population can participate in an activity or assembly at one time.

If the district decides the new school should be a middle school, it would allow two middle schools, easing the constraints currently felt at IMS. The issue of capacity at the elementary schools could also be helped by making the new middle school grades 5-8, but the board felt there are many educational impacts to look at with that option.

While it’s not something the district has spent a lot of time talking about, there could be advantages, according to Lakeridge principal Fred Rundle.

“It could be a benefit to the kids to be there for four years,” said Rundle. “However, with moving to the Common Core standards, it’s set up for K-5 and 6-12, which suits us nicely now. But the kids would have more access to classes. It’s not something I think we should say ‘absolutely not’ to.”

While it was an intriguing idea to the board members, they all agreed that if the new building is a middle school, the district should not split schools into a K-4, 5-6, 7-8 model, as it creates too many transitions for students and families.

Bainbridge Island, with a similar population to Mercer Island, did in fact use that model to help with a capacity problem in the late 1990s, but now is considering switching back after a decline in enrollment.

“They’ve lived with it since 1999, but they do have concerns,” said Plano. “Two years is not enough time and staffing is actually harder, so it ends up costing more. The parent community also wasn’t happy with it.”

While the bond put before the community in April did not include the option for a new high school, it has been included in the discussions now because the board wanted to look at all possibilities, and it’s an option that gives the district the most flexibility — and while it is expensive up front, saves money later on. Even if the board chooses ultimately not to pursue that option, MIHS would need work to increase capacity for students. Currently, the building is designed for 1,200 students, but houses 1,400 by utilizing every room all the time, meaning teachers have little flexibility or access to the room outside of class time.

Several high school science teachers were on hand at the meeting and told the board that the current set-up means sharing a science classroom with various disciplines of science, creating clutter and making it difficult to set up for labs and other course work.

The board also briefly discussed Mary Wayte Pool and the high school stadium, both of which will need updates in the next several years to continue to be operational. Mary Wayte, at the very least, will require some basic maintenance to keep the pool operation for the next 10 years. That is expected to cost the district around $2.5 million. Stadium improvements, such as redoing the press box — which badly needs updating — would also run between $2.5 million or upwards of $7 million, depending on what the district wants to do with the area.

“I want to be very clear that we’re doing the things we feel like we have to,” said board member Pat Braman. “We have an obligation to house students, and maybe the other things are on a separate bond.”

After the study session, the board again opened the floor to public comment.

“There is an implication that those who voted against the bond aren’t in support of the school, but that’s not true,” said David de Yarza, who has a child who attends Island Park Elementary. “The exchange you had with the teachers, principals, was fascinating, and I wished it had happened earlier. I think this is very good stuff. I don’t think people will shy away from the amount of money to be spent.”

West Mercer parent Julie Newcomer said she is already concerned by the traffic in the North Mercer campus area, and said she was “really concerned about traffic if there is another building.”

Trevor Hart told the board that he felt education specs needed to be included in the discussion, and that replacing the high school would only delay the elementary and middle school problems because it would take several years before a new high school could be up and running.

One area the board did not get to discuss was community engagement, largely because they feel they still have work to do.

“I wanted to talk to you about the item that didn’t get talked about tonight, the community engagement piece,” said Frank Morrison. “I’m delighted to see the progress you’ve made, but I’m curious what the public message is. I urge you to do a couple of things; first, don’t get bogged down with information and focus on what the message is. I urge you to do it. Capacity, capacity, capacity. I do not believe you can have an adequate master plan without more involvement from the city. We as owners and taxpayers should tell the council they need to be a player in this.”

Al Terrill, the last speaker of the evening, wondered why the costs for adding classrooms to the high school had gone up from estimates a year ago, and felt that the middle school with grades 5-8 could be a good option, as long as there aren’t transition problems for the kids.

“I like that with this option, no kid would commute the full length of the Island until ninth grade,” he said.

The board will hold it's first regular meeting of September on Thursday, Sept. 13, at 7 p.m. in the board room. Copies of all presentations given at board meetings are available on the MISD website at www.mercerislandschools.org under the School Board tab.

 

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