Letter | Right decision to replace schools
February 14, 2012 · 2:44 PM
I am writing in response to Trevor Hart’s Feb. 1 letter to the editor, “Board should look at saving existing school buildings.” Mr. Hart’s opinion is that “the recommendation of the 21st Century Facility Planning Committee (21CFPC) has led the School Board down a fiscally irresponsible path…” and “The 21st Century report, categorically, rejects a remodel/addition option based on false and inaccurate assumptions with regard to site limitations and the constraints of existing building infrastructure.”
As a member of that citizens’ committee which studied the issue of remodeling vs. rebuilding the schools in developing our recommendation, I strongly disagree. Over the course of a year, 20 citizens from across the Mercer Island community studied the issue of remodeling versus rebuilding our overcrowded schools. The 21CFPC included a scientist, lawyers, accountants, engineers, business executives, retirees and parents with kids in the school — a real cross section of our community. We met multiple times with outside architects and construction consultants experienced in both school remodels and rebuilds. The overwhelming opinion of the experts, and of the committee, was that rebuilding our 50-year-old schools was the most cost-effective solution. The simple facts are that the schools are up against the impervious surface limitations for their sites — they cannot be expanded outward. In addition, the existing structures’ cinder block infrastructure cannot support a second-story without significant retrofitting, approaching the cost of a new school. We consistently heard that to remodel our schools, we would spend 80-85 percent of the cost of a newly constructed school and still not end up with a building that conforms to current programmatic or environmental standards.
Mr. Hart also states that many families “moved to Mercer Island for the quality of education being provided, not for the bricks and mortar that merely supplement and hopefully complement the learning experience.” In fact, the school buildings are no longer complementing the learning; they are hindering it. Spend even a few minutes in any of our elementary schools, and you will see hallways utilized as learning spaces, art rooms and school play rehearsal, sometimes all at the same time. You will find lunch periods shortened to accommodate three shifts and kids not having enough time to eat. You will find playgrounds overflowing with portable classrooms to accommodate the overcrowded student population. Hoping the buildings complement the learning experience is no longer enough. Finally, a look at every neighboring school district reveals that just the sort of replacing of 1950s-style schools that Mr. Hart criticizes is happening. Bellevue, Lake Washington, Renton, Issaquah are all replacing their aging schools. Why would they be doing that if remodeling was the more fiscally responsible approach?
The conclusion of the 21st Century Facility Planning Committee was that rebuilding the schools was the most efficient, cost-effective solution available to our community, and the School Board agreed. Mr. Hart is incorrect to state otherwise.