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District informs preschools it may want facilities back

Students at the Little Acorn Day School cover their ears as they wait for the fire alarm to be turned of on Jan. 6. The alarm was tripped when a motor in the school’s heating system got too hot, Mercer Island Fire Department officials said. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Students at the Little Acorn Day School cover their ears as they wait for the fire alarm to be turned of on Jan. 6. The alarm was tripped when a motor in the school’s heating system got too hot, Mercer Island Fire Department officials said.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

The Mercer Island School District has sent a notice of lease termination to Pixie Hill Preschool and Little Acorn Day School — both located in the North Mercer Campus — notifying the tenants that the space may be recaptured due to district needs.

According to two letters sent out on Jan. 5, the district “has made a preliminary determination that the property leased to Pixie Hill Preschool [and Little Acorn Day School] is needed by the district for school purposes.” Such purposes were defined as “a steadily increasing student population” and “expanding program needs which may require additional classroom spaces.”

The tenants, who signed the five-year lease agreement in 2005, have 180 days before the district can legally recall the space.

Yet School District Superintendent Gary Plano, who signed both letters, said the notices of termination are not abiding.

“I did write a letter giving them a preliminary indication that we may need the space back. This does not evict them per se. We’re continuing to do an assessment to determine if space needs require us to move some programs to two areas in the North Mercer Campus,” he said.

Associate Superintendent of Business Services Liz Ziara, who is involved in the space-needs assessment, echoed this point.

“We’re still in the preliminary stages of studying current program and facility needs, as we just received a [districtwide] demographic study,” she said, referring to a recent update on district enrollment and individual program numbers. “Legally, we had to send [the tenants] a letter in order to notify them that there may be an impending need for the district to reclaim that space.”

Meanwhile, the directors of Pixie Hill and Little Acorn — both of whom were shocked by the letters — are already searching for new rental space.

“I really wasn’t expecting anything for five years,” said Tiana Traylor, director of Little Acorn Day School. “I’m probably going to try to buy a new house. I’m really sad because this is a beautiful space. It’s really big and the playground is nice.”

Realistically, a move would mean that Traylor would have to downsize.

“Right now we have 24 children. If I bought a house I would have to go down to 18, and that’s a bummer — to serve less people on the Island,” said Traylor, who has owned Little Acorn since 2000.

Traylor has been more than grateful for the daycare center’s North Mercer space, as rental prices are “very affordable” at approximately $1,200 per month. The cheapest house Traylor has found on the Island starts at $650,000 “and then there will be revision costs.”

The 180-day notice, if realized, presents a tight time constraint. The process of obtaining a new license, moving and remodeling the daycare facility will take months.

“It’s going to be a real stretch with a 180-day time window. When you get a new center license it takes at least six months from the time of rent to open,” Traylor said.

Moving off Mercer Island, she said, is not an option.

“Little Acorn is here to serve the Island,” Traylor emphasized.

Pixy Hill director Ann Connolly is also determined to keep the preschool alive and on the Island.

“I have such ties to this school. I’ve been here 17 or 18 years,” she said. “I’m committed to Pixie Hill continuing successfully.”

The two directors are determined to help one another out.

“We’ll be looking out for each other,” Traylor said. “If [Connolly] finds a space big enough to share she’ll let me know.”

Ziara and Plano, who maintain that the termination of lease is not resolute, met with Anne Marie Krivens, president of the Pixie Hill Volunteer Board, on Jan. 9 to discuss the situation. Krivens openly expressed her biggest concern: what to tell parents before Pixie Hill registration for 2009-2010 opens up next week.

“The timing of this letter is really poor. We have to tell parents at registration that we don’t know if Pixie Hill will be in the same place,” she said.

Krivens added, however, that Ziara and Plano were receptive to her concern and agreed to meet with her again, with more detail into the district’s situation, the day before registration is scheduled to open on Jan. 20.

“What’s driving the district’s need for additional space is an increase in program needs; the autism program, the special education program — their enrollment is increasing,” Ziara said.

Indeed, a 2004 to 2008 demographic study shows that special education enrollment is up by nearly 20 students. Director of Student Services Pat Turner presented the report at last Thursday’s School Board meeting. According to the data, the number of “Low-Incidence-High-Needs” students, who make up the Autism Spectrum and Life Skills programs, has nearly doubled since 2004. Preschool enrollment has also seen “a significant increase” since 2004.

Other district numbers were unavailable when the Reporter went to press on Tuesday.

“We can’t speak about demographics specifically without reviewing it with demographer,” Ziara said.

The demographic study will be ready for discussion by the School Board’s Jan. 20 retreat. It is one of the first topics on the agenda. The retreat will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Community Center at Mercer View.

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