Consultant urges Mercer Island School District to delay decision on school bond

Triangle Associates, a consultant firm hired to conduct public outreach to gather input on how to rebuild or expand Island schools, said that the community is yet to be convinced of the need for or scale of any new school facilities. But the renewed outreach efforts have been positively received and are helping to rebuild trust in the school district.

In a report given to the Mercer Island School District last Thursday, Triangle Associates said that before any decision is made regarding another bond issue, it recommends that the district extend the decision process so it can fully look at everything in more detail.

The report emphasized the need to continue building trust with the community. It concluded that for the strongest chance of success, more time is needed to conduct community outreach. A bond measure should be placed on the ballot later in 2013 or in early 2014, it said.

Triangle was hired by the district several months ago after a $196 million dollar bond issue to rebuild Island schools was soundly defeated by voters. Triangle was to conduct a more deliberate community engagement process that would allow school officials to gather more information about how community members felt about renovating or rebuilding Island schools. Triangle held several community meetings and hosted several online sites to foster discussion on the options. Information gathered in those meetings became the basis of the final report.

The report emphasized that their findings did not point to a clear option in terms of how to proceed in asking for a vote on money to rebuild. Yet, if the board needed an option now, they did offer a recommendation, albeit one with many caveats.

“If forced to choose from the three options today and answer how to best address overcrowding based on community input, Triangle would recommend selecting Option 1b (a new elementary and $33.2 million partial rebuild of IMS) and including pool and stadium improvements as propositions separate from the school overcrowding (potentially at a different time),” said the report. “However, quickly moving forward with a bond measure at this point in time comes with serious risk and is not something that Triangle recommends.”

The findings said there are still negative feelings toward the district that would only be amplified through moving quickly to a new bond.

“The board’s making a decision at this time would bring significant negative perceptions for a few reasons: residual mistrust over perceived past property management (e.g. partnering with the Boys and Girls Club of King County on the PEAK facility and selling the land now housing the Mercer Island Community and Event Center some 30 years ago), concern over traffic around the high school ‘mega-block,’ community desire to see a long-term facilities plan, lack of understanding about 21st century education facilities, etc.,” the study said.

The consultants found that while Islanders are passionate about their schools, “some citizens do not have a clear understanding of how overcrowding impacts the quality of schools.” Others, it continued, “do not see a sense of urgency due to the fact that schools buildings benefited from renovations in the mid-1990s and are not ‘broken.’ Other community members do not see the detrimental effect of have a few kids in portables.”

Dr. Gary Plano, Superintendent of Island schools, agrees. He hopes for the outreach to expand beyond those who choose to participate in meetings and comment on websites.

“I support Triangle’s conclusions and agree with their recommendation to continue to test solutions dealing with overcrowding,” he said.

“I am hopeful that the School Board will seek a statistically-accurate sample of the wider community before it makes any decision.”

Islander Trevor Hart who opposed the last bond issue said that Triangle’s recommendation to do more work with voters was a safe conclusion, but a sound one.

He said however, that the list of options and what they include i.e. the pool or additional STEM funding, need to be laid out more clearly.

Triangle does say in the report that progress has been made in that at least two rebuilding options can be ruled out, as no one appeared to favor those.

A full copy of the report is available on the MISD website (under the Dec. 10 agenda, Triangle’s Final Report).

On Dec. 13 the board will have its only regular meeting of December in the City Council Chambers.

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