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Mercer Island School District weighs news of tolling study on I-90

After watching the same presentation given at the Mercer Island City Council meeting a couple of weeks ago, the Mercer Island School District Board of Directors voiced concern for the plan to put tolls on Interstate 90.

As part of the environmental assessment being done by the Washington State Department of Transportation, the WSDOT is looking for feedback from local groups on the effect tolling would have and possible mitigations that could alleviate some concerns.

Currently, there are 333 district employees who live off Mercer Island, roughly two-thirds of the staff. Another 158 live on the Island.

“It’s unique that there is no drive around here,” asked Superintendent Gary Plano.

Board member Adair Dingle said she’s extremely concerned about what tolling would do to the district’s ability to attract new teachers.

“It’s a very significant issue for the district,” she said. “We’ll have extreme difficulty attracting teachers. I just see us being crippled.”

Board president Janet Frohnmayer pointed out that the number of teachers who live off Island is only going to increase as older staff retire and younger teachers live off-Island, whether it be because of costs or because space here is limited.

“There’s not a lot of land to develop so people can live here,” said Plano, comparing this situation to that of Gig Harbor and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. “It disproportionately taxes people who live here. We’d have to ask for a levy lift by some number.”

Other members of the board wondered how this would affect teachers’ schedules, work done outside of the regular school day and those who don’t spend a full day on the Island.

“Outside of staff, think of referees, coaches and others that come for two hours for a game; that’s a significant burden,” said board member Brian Emanuels.

As the district continues to consider future facilities plans and addressing overcrowding in buildings, tolling could significantly change those plans, especially since there is no way to know exactly how tolling could affect demographics on the Island.

“This kind of throws everything out of whack,” said Frohnmayer.

The board roughly estimated that if teachers come to the Island 180 days a year, which is only the number of school days — not including other training done before and after school in the summer — with a relatively low toll, it could cost the district up to $500,000 a year, should the district choose to cover the cost for employees.

“If the district pays $500,000 a year, that’s about seven teachers,” said Frohnmayer.

The board plans to send official comments to WSDOT on the project at a later date.

Public comment is being taken on the environmental assessment through Feb. 22.

Comments can be sent to the WSDOT at i90EAcomments@wsdot.wa.gov.

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