Schools, city will collaborate on North Mercer campus plans

Following a joint meeting between the Mercer Island School District board of directors and the Mercer Island City Council last Monday, the two bodies have agreed to have further discussion concerning the future of joint facilities on the Island. In particular, the School Board and City Council will look into the future possibilities of Mary Wayte Pool, Youth Theatre Northwest (YTN) and a possible shared administration building between the two organizations.

The joint meeting highlighted many projects and questions surrounding those projects as the school district moves through a facilities plan for the North Mercer Campus.

As part of the PEAK lease agreement between the school district and the neighbors of the North Mercer campus, the school district is working to finish a facilities master plan by June 1. The district is looking long-term at facilities all over the Island, including what to do with the land at the North Mercer campus, which is owned by the district and leased to outside vendors.

According to the district, a recent facility audit found that many of the buildings on the site are in dire need of repair and the cost of refurbishing them would likely exceed building a new facility. District administrators are also cognizant of the continuing growth and demographic change in the area, which will likely mean that at some point in the future the district will need to build a new school or several over the next decades.

Mary Wayte Pool

While specifics were not part of the discussion last Monday, in an effort to keep the conversation from getting bogged down by unanswerable questions, it quickly became clear how important both bodies felt Mary Wayte Pool and YTN were to the community.

“There are a lot of people who want to have a pool facility,” said Councilmember Dan Grausz. “You have an interest, and so do we. At some point, Northwest Center will drop out of this because it’s just not viable.”

Mary Wayte Pool, which is on land owned by the district, is currently operated by Northwest Center, which receives some financial assistance from the city.

“At some point in the near future, we’ll need to replace the pool,” said Superintendent Gary Plano. Students and teams from the school district are among the biggest users of the pool, and members of the board said swim and aquatic programs at high schools without direct access to a pool are at a disadvantage and see that disadvantage in meet results.

Rich Conrad, city manager, said that the Stroum Jewish Community Center, which also has a pool, is currently looking into a renovation, which would likely include a new pool facility.

“They are very open to working with the city and the school district,” said Conrad.

Councilmember El Jahncke said he was concerned with finances and didn’t want to see the city be forced to spend more than it has already.

“I think it would be desirable to have a public facility, but we have to look at how much more of a financial commitment the city can make,” said Jahncke. “Working with the JCC would make a lot of sense. We have to be realistic about the cost.”

Youth Theatre Northwest

Youth Theatre Northwest, a longtime mainstay of the Island, was told by the district last year that it would likely be looking into other options for the space, according to Plano. The organization’s lease with the district ends in August 2010.

“We have given them notice in the past year or two that they should be thinking about this,” said Plano. The North Mercer campus’ other tenants, which include CHILD school, Pixie Hill Daycare and Little Acorn Preschool, have all been contacted and Plano said CHILD is interested in working with the district to create a long-term solution, possibly a long-term lease somewhere else on district property.

For some members of the Council, the possibility of helping YTN find a new location seemed to be outside the city’s purview of responsibility.

“I don’t see how we can justify financing a new facility for YTN,” said Jahncke. But other members were more open to at least looking into ways to help.

“There is a long history of cities supporting the arts, and we don’t do very much,” said Grausz. “The school district — to their credit — has, and it’s my opinion that it’s great. If we as a community think there’s a reason to save it, then someone has to lead that with YTN. We have to engage in the process.”

Councilmember Mike Cero wanted solid evidence from the district that the YTN building was, in fact, on its last legs.

“I’m not sold on the building being on its last usable legs,” he said. “I hope we’re not just assuming the building is gone.”

Other individuals were concerned about how to balance the desires of the community with each entity’s stated mission.

“This is part of the gray area that’s all around us outside our core mission,” said School Board member Lisa Egger Strauch. “I think it’s a really tough discussion, and I think it’s going to be rough sledding ahead.”

Shared administration buildings

The school district’s administration building is also in need of repairs, and the district is considering options, including possibly sharing office space with the city.

“I would love to see this used as an opportunity to put us downtown to use the Town Center as it should be,” said Grausz. “This came up in the context of doing something in the Town Center, from a city standpoint, that would drive people to the Town Center.”

Both sides agreed to look into the issue more to see if there were any specific reasons why a joint space wouldn’t work.

“There is an alignment of the planets with this opportunity,” said Councilmember Mike Grady. “It’s a tremendous opportunity. These are the reasons I joined the City Council. This is the fun stuff.”

Jahncke said this would simply be too much for the district to try and tackle at a time when it is considering building several new schools.

“That’s why we need to research this,” said board member Pat Braman. “We just have to look at some of those things.”

Grausz said neither group can wait for this kind of opportunity to arise again because it will be a long time before it does.

“If we don’t dare to look at these kinds of things, then shame on us,” he said.

Conrad, Plano, Mayor Jim Pearman and School Board President Adair Dingle will meet and discuss the work ahead. The Reporter will follow their progress.

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