Opinion

Our students can’t wait | Editorial

Everyone can agree that the face of education is changing faster than ever. What students will need to meet the cognitive and social challenges in the coming years will not be met within the existing school buildings here. Within the uncertainty of the economic landscape, our duty is to make sure our students — no matter what their abilities — have the tools and skills they need for what lies ahead.

Through numerous studies, hours of analysis and hard work, the Mercer Island School District Board of Directors has sought to clarify what our schools should offer in the coming years.

So why are many citizens uneasy about what they are asked to vote on in the April 17 election?

From our perspective, there are three broad issues that underlie the discussions about the school bond.

First, why is it necessary to demolish the existing buildings?

Next, how will overcrowding — and the fact that an entire school’s worth of students remain in portables — be dealt with sooner rather than later?

Finally, has the district exhausted all of its options for using existing school land and resources for learning spaces to ease crowding and enhance learning?

The plans to modernize the schools began some four years ago, as the district looked at the shape of the existing buildings weighted against what educational facilities need to be like in the coming years.

The board hired consultants to help. Later, they wisely enlisted the considerable talent in the community to help them define what was needed and what was possible. Their conclusion was that the most cost-effective way to provide a 21st century education is to rebuild.

As this work got started, enrollment was falling. In 2007 and 2008, 128 out-of-district students were admitted. But in 2008 and 2009, an equal and unexpected number of Island students also enrolled. The trend has continued as the Island population has grown.

As a result, the justification for new buildings began to shift away from the need for a new way to deliver teaching and learning to one that is focused on overcrowding.

Muddying the issue is also the fact that in the years prior, parcels of school land had been sold or tied up in leases with private entities. The high school block is occupied by long-term tenants such as Youth Theatre Northwest and PEAK.

The process of conducting a master plan for the entire ‘superblock’ around Mercer Island High School — that was to be finished within two years of the legal settlement with neighbors regarding PEAK in 2008 — might have served as a useful entree for educating the community about what 21st century schools are all about, and the suitability of existing sites. It has not been done.

And, while the School Board has been deeply involved in this issue, they have forgotten that citizens are not. Perhaps half of Island citizens do not have students in Island schools. All have long memories. They want to know why the structures they have paid for, that have educated their own children, are now not good enough and must be discarded.

And what about the cost? It will be a stretch for some taxpayers. When the present school bonds expire in 2015, the new bond will replace it and increase it. For Islanders living in a home worth $1 million, school taxes will increase $700 per year.

On the other hand, Island citizens have an obligation to pay for schools both now and in the future. Part of that obligation is voting for school directors and recognizing that we put those people in place to act in our best interests.

In our view, the School Board should have given voters more time and more specific information to process these proposals. Yet, operating a public process is a tough road. No one is ever satisfied. This vote should not be a referendum about how well the board has marketed its plans — but on schools and the children they serve.

We need to get started now. We say vote yes.

 

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