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School ‘listening sessions’ valuable
After many months of work, the Mercer Island School District is approaching a final proposal for a bond to send to the community for a vote next year. The district has held several ‘listening sessions’ with the public and has gathered input in a variety of ways over the past 15 months.
A new bond to rebuild Island schools has taken shape. The dollar amount is less and the changes less dramatic. Many who vehemently opposed the first bond sent to the voters last year have now joined in supporting the proposal.
The amount of new construction has been scaled back to reflect voters’ view that the first bond was simply too much and that not enough detail was available to justify the amount. Many felt that the remodeled schools still have several years of life left in them.
The amount of the bond has been reduced substantially from $196 million, turned down by voters in April of 2012, to under $100 million.
The latest proposal includes a new elementary school adjacent to the high school campus for approximately 500 students with a developmental preschool, for $42 million; an extensive renovation, rebuild and expansion at Islander Middle School for $49 million; and a 10-classroom addition to Mercer Island High School for $11.6 million.
An amount of $3.8 million of state dollars will reduce the total amount to be paid for by local dollars.
At a listening session at Islander Middle School on the evening of Aug. 27, some three dozen Islanders came to look at new renderings of the plans and talk one-on-one school with school administrators and contractors. When asked how many attendees felt that they did not know much about the district’s plans, several raised their hands.
Others wanted to ask questions about what they already knew.
Some old themes from the campaign and defeat of the original bond lingered. Along with cost, the idea that most buildings are still sufficient and worth saving is still part of the discussion.
When superintendent Gary Plano related some issues with the contractor for the newly remodeled music space at the high school, Islander Dwight Schaeffer commented that such hassles were another reason “to leave good enough alone.”
When discussing the need for a larger multi-purpose room at the school to eliminate the three-lunch period issue, Ira Appelman asked why the west wall of the space couldn’t simply be expanded outward. Plano was quick to point out that he believed it would not be a good use of taxpayer money.
“Why didn’t we save the old ‘mushroom’ (structure) at the high school?” he asked. “Why should we pay to maintain an old, outdated school?”
Others are worried that the scaled-down plans are merely to make sure that the bond issue passes.
“Will this be a Band-Aid?” asked one parent who supported the first bond measure. “Will this meet our kids’ needs? Or is this amount to make sure (Islanders) pass it this time?”
Those who support the bond, however, are concerned that the initial estimates for construction on these areas have increased by a third. They are worried that they will not be able to convince voters that the new plans are the right way to go.
Islander Ralph Jorgenson, who has been following the process closely, said he is now more comfortable supporting the new proposal now. The new plans are backed up by specifics, he said.
“They did it right this time,” he said. “We needed those ‘ed specs’ to be able to see where the money would go.”
But he also said the new construction estimates bother him. They have increased. He wanted to know how he was going to “sell” the new amount to skeptical voters.
Design consultants and school officials say it is the changes in external factors that made costs increase.
District finance director Dean Mack pointed to two factors that drove changes in plan costs. The first, he said, was the change in the economy. When the plans were first put together, he explained, the country was in a major recession and interest rates were low. Construction activity dropped dramatically, and many companies were offering their services at greatly reduced rates, downsizing and laying off workers or simply going out of business.
Next, interest rates were significantly lower, he added, meaning that the cost of borrowing also fell. Those interest rates have rebounded somewhat, increasing the cost of borrowing money.
Now that the economy has picked up steam, fewer contractors are available to bid for business. Many are already busy. As a result, bids have gone up. Also quite notable is that new energy codes enacted recently and site requirements for dealing with stormwater and drainage issues on the land also increase the project cost.
Another listening session held the next day at the old North Mercer gym concerned the elementary school to be built there. It will be the fourth such school and will hold about 500 students. Some 40 people came to talk to Islanders about the project. They again had questions regarding cost and design. Many who came the previous evening attended that session as well.
The new school will take over the property occupied by Youth Theatre Northwest, the old North Mercer gym and the building that houses CHILD and Country Village Day School, at the corner of S.E. 40th Street and 86th Avenue S.E. It will be adjacent to the Boys & Girls Club PEAK building.
At the regular School Board meeting on the morning of Aug. 29, Jorgenson, David D’Souza and Schaffer all spoke of the changes in the proposal that have emerged over the past several months. Those changes, most importantly in the area of more specifics on the design, have brought them to support a new bond amount.
D’Souza noted that the school district has done a great deal of work since the bond was defeated.
“We cannot dismiss all the work that has gone on to (refine) this present proposal,” he said.
Listening session set for Sept. 12
Another listening session will be held Sept. 12. For more information about the outreach efforts of the school district regarding the bond, go to www.mercerislandschools.org and click on ‘News and Events.’
The school district also plans to conduct another poll of Islanders regarding school plans in the near future.