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Mercer Island School District plans will displace Youth Theatre Northwest

YTN actors Daniel Pooley, 11, Daniel Kranseler, 13, and Katie Becker, 15, sit for a warm-up session before performing in “It’s a Whatchamadoozlie with a Whadayacallit (with a Thingmajigit on Top!)” on Saturday, May 1. - Elizabeth Celms/Mercer Island Reporter
YTN actors Daniel Pooley, 11, Daniel Kranseler, 13, and Katie Becker, 15, sit for a warm-up session before performing in “It’s a Whatchamadoozlie with a Whadayacallit (with a Thingmajigit on Top!)” on Saturday, May 1.
— image credit: Elizabeth Celms/Mercer Island Reporter

A crowd of Island residents showed up at the school district’s “21st Century Facilities Plan” public meeting on May 1 — nearly twice as many as showed the week prior for the North Mercer block residents’ meeting.

The majority of people, attending to hear Mercer Island School District Superintendent Gary Plano go over the district’s “master plan” for the North Mercer campus, were Islanders. Some of the attendees, however, were non-residents with a stake in the North Mercer campus.

Much like the Town Hall meeting one week before, Plano introduced the dilemma he faces: due to a predicted surge in student enrollment and the deteriorating Islander Middle School building, the district has little choice but to reclaim the North Mercer campus for classroom facilities.

Tentative plans are to move Islander Middle School to the North Mercer campus, which is currently leased by the Children’s Institute for Learning Differences (CHILD) center and its annexed preschools — Country Village, Pixie Hill and Little Acorn — Youth Theatre Northwest and the Mary Wayte Pool.

If the decision is made, all six tenants would have to find new homes. Although concerns over traffic problems, tax costs, social issues of merging middle-schoolers with high-schoolers, and the master plan’s environmental impact on the neighborhood were expressed, many of the people at Saturday’s meetings were there solely in defense of North Mercer’s current tenants — in particular, Youth Theatre Northwest (YTN).

“What will happen to the theater?” asked Julie Ogata, whose 8-year-old daughter has taken classes and acted in YTN plays for years. Ogata is deeply involved with the theater herself. She sits on the YTN board of directors and volunteers with the theater as a parent.

“We really want the district’s support in trying to help us find ways to stay on Mercer Island,” she said.

YTN has been hanging by a financial shoestring for more than a year now. In February 2009, theater administration launched a “Save YTN” campaign with the goal of raising $100,000. With help from the community and city, the theater raised enough money to keep it in production.

Despite this struggle, Ogata said that most YTN parents were shocked to learn that the district was considering reclaiming the theater’s property.

“I don’t think many saw it coming. It’s all really new,” she said.

YTN Executive Director Manuel Cawaling, however, did see it coming.

“This news is no surprise to me. We know this building is coming to the end of its life. We were part of the [2008 engineering evaluation of district facilities] process,” he said.

YTN has leased the North Mercer space from the district since 1984, when it first brought young actors to its stage. Before YTN was established, the property was part of North Mercer Junior High, which was closed in 1982. The building, built in 1960, is deteriorating quickly. It was given the poorest rating of all MISD buildings in the 2008 evaluation.

North Mercer life expectancy aside, Cawaling said he understands the district’s need for more classroom space.

“Of course we support K through 12 education. As a theater, we enhance this work. We’re part of K through 12,” he said.

Like Ogata, Cawaling would like to see YTN transition to a new building on the Island. Yet he understands the logistical and financial difficulties of this process.

“We’re at the biggest crossroads that YTN has faced. This is where we ask ourselves the big questions: What is our mission? Who is YTN?” he said. “We’ll have to reorganize our board and the staff to prepare for a successful campaign to transition and move.”

During the May 1 public meeting, Plano floated some options for YTN and other North Mercer tenants. The first option is moving them to the current IMS building. Another idea is to remodel Mary Wayte Pool into a new theater. Both ideas, however, are merely the outcome of brainstorm.

No option has yet been studied.

Cawaling said that he appreciates the district’s willingness to work with YTN during this “21st Century Facilities” planning session. He is, however, ambivalent about some of the district’s suggestions.

“The district mentioned IMS. I don’t know how I feel about moving into a space that could be reclaimed once again,” he said, adding that he was “open to exploring possibilities.”

Meanwhile, Cawaling is trying to keep morale up among YTN children. They are the ones, he said, who are especially anxious about the news.

“I learned that some of our kids have started a ‘Save YTN from destruction’ Facebook page,” he said with a laugh.

Then on a serious note, he emphasized just how much YTN’s survival means to its young actors.

“We know YTN is our children’s third place after school and home. So we know that our kids are really, really, concerned and worried,” the director said. “We’re not taking this lightly. We’ll come up with a solution as a community. Nobody will be left in the dark.”

Future Reporter stories will concern other North Mercer tenants.

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