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Plans to be drawn up for new Mercer Island schools

The Mercer Island School District got a better idea of where the district and possible bonds sit with the community after getting the results of the latest EMC Research phone survey during the board’s January retreat.

At the retreat, held Tuesday, Jan. 22, the board looked at the survey results that were slightly different from the survey done last June.

The results, as well as information gathered from last year’s community outreach, allowed the board to narrow its focus and begin working on next steps toward a future bond.

During the board’s regular meeting on Thursday, the board asked Superintendent Gary Plano to prepare specifications for a new elementary school, as well as a middle school, to go along with what has already been done for an addition to the high school. The board felt this work was going to need to be done no matter when a bond is sent to voters. Having more information available to the public would help in passing the measure, they reasoned.

“It’s fair for people to know what’s ahead,” said board member Janet Frohnmayer.

Plano said it will take several months for the specifications to be completed, which makes it less likely for a bond issue to be on the ballot in April, but the board felt putting a specific timeline on when the measure hits the ballot was a secondary concern to starting the other work.

“I will identify a group of staff to work with the firms on two ed spec processes,” said Plano. “It will take a number of months; likely in early summer we’d have an early rendering, which is really excluding an April vote and August vote.”

Plano added the plans for the middle school would be for a complete school. But construction would be broken down into two phases, with the first phase becoming the expansion on an upcoming bond. It would also serve as a master plan for the school.

The survey was done just after the beginning of the year. It included questions about the district and the various options being considered for a new school for 300 students.

When asked how Mercer Island schools were doing overall, 42 percent said excellent, 40 percent said good, while 6 percent were undecided and 2 percent said only fair or poor.

That’s essentially the same message that survey results revealed in June, with 82 percent saying the schools were doing “good to excellent.”

Teachers also continued to receive high marks. Those results were higher in January than in June, while school district administrators also received a slight bump up with 48 percent saying their were doing an excellent job, compared to 37 percent in June.

“We expected some rebound and got it,” said Ian Stewart, with EMC Research.

The major message in the survey was that Islanders feel more positive about expanding the high school and middle school to accommodate more student than building new schools.

Expanding the middle school was supported by 69 percent of those surveyed, while rebuilding the school was supported by only 39 percent of those surveyed.

The $6 million expansion of the high school, which would create additional labs and classroom space for the school, received 84 percent support, while adding portables to house students at the high school earned 76 percent support.

“Over and over again, the option to expand is more popular than rebuilding,” said Stewart. “Time and time again, the word ‘new’ causes almost an allergic reaction.”

He added the path that is more conservative seems to be the option that those who were asked supported.

When asked if a $30 million elementary project was favorable, 60 percent said they either strongly support or somewhat support the project. Sixty-seven percent of those asked said they believe there is a capacity issue at schools, while 28 percent said capacity is not a problem.

When asked in the survey if there was an issue with having one new elementary and three older schools, 73 percent of respondents said they were OK with it, while only 17 percent thought it was unfair.

The major reasons cited for not supporting a new elementary on the North Mercer Campus include: feelings that a new school is not necessary or that there is enough space as is; the high cost of building; that there is a better way to use the space; that it is a poor location and there are traffic concerns and that services, such as Youth Theatre Northwest, will have no place to go.

Unsurprisingly, 74 percent of people who supported addressing both the elementary and middle school concerns had children in the district, while 26 percent of those without kids in the district wanted to do both. Slightly more people who lived on the South end were in support (40 percent) of fixing both, versus the North end respondents at 37 percent. Of those asked who were over 60 years old, only 26 percent were in favor of addressing both right away, while 40 percent said do the elementary first and then the middle.

“Support for a big package isn’t there,” said Stewart. “I would say people with kids in the district are an important driver.”

The survey found that 57 percent of responders opposed a large $124 million bond package, while 39 percent strongly supported or somewhat supported the option. The idea of putting forward a smaller bond with a slight increase in taxes as older bonds expire was seen as slightly more favorable. Forty-three percent said they would support that option, while 50 percent opposed it.

When asking about funding for the pool and stadium, the consensus was to put those up as separate measures. Of everyone asked, 77 percent agreed that those items should be separate, while 15 percent said they disagreed.

“They really feel there are bigger education issues,” said Stewart.

Sixty-two percent said they would support a $2.5 million pool renovation to extend the life of the pool, while only 46 percent supported the more expensive $7.9 million new pool. Neither option for stadium improvements received much support, with 63 percent disagreeing with the idea of a $6 million update to the stadium, and 54 percent disagreeing with a $2 million update.

One of the last questions in the survey pertained to pool ownership and which entity on Mercer Island should own and operate the pool. The answers showed that most either don’t have a preference (50 percent) or that the city should operate it (43 percent). Only 8 percent of those asked said the MISD should run the pool.

Stewart told the board that while the numbers have improved, typically percentages in the 70 percent range are what EMC likes to see before bond measures are finalized.  A result that means work still needs to be done.

“I don’t think low numbers of 60 or 70 percent make me want to do anything right now,” said board member Pat Braman.

Based on the new survey results and other information gathered from the community outreach efforts in the fall, a February or April bond is becoming less likely for the board.

“I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll be successful in an April bond,” said Superintendent Gary Plano. “We need another six to 12 months to educate and work with the community. Other districts give voters a year’s notice to really consider it.”

He added that in November, the ballot is likely to include several King County levy measures, and putting a bond on the ballot with other tax increases would make people leery.

“People might want to pick and choose,” he said. “Conventional wisdom says to be alone for a school bond election.”

MISD board meeting Feb. 14

The next regular meeting of the Mercer Island School District Board of Directors will be Thursday, Feb. 14.

The board will meet at 9 a.m. in the City Council Chambers.

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