Lake Washington schools will try a different bond in April

March 14, 2014

By Ari Cetron

New: March 14, 1:13 p.m.

Rick Whitney is just the kind of person the Lake Washington School Board is hoping to reach when it presents voters with a new bond measure in April.

The Kirkland resident spoke at the March 3 school board meeting, and explained why he voted against the district’s $755 million bond measure in February. Whitney, who said he’d never before opposed a school request for funding, thought the bond measure was asking for too much overall, and that the cost of new schools was excessive.

While most district residents might have disagreed with him, the bond measure still failed; it garnered 57.8 percent of the vote but needed 60 percent to pass.

District leaders are left scrambling since they still expect to have to accommodate 4,000 new students by 2021.

“Our needs have not changed. We still have growing enrollment,” said Superintendent Traci Pierce.

Board member Chris Carlson said that while he was disappointed in the people who voted against the bond on election night, he’s since had a change of heart.

“They are actually rational people,” he said. “We asked for a lot. But I hope they understand how desperate we are. You can’t distance-learning kindergarten.”

In response, the school board opted to break the previous bond proposal into two parts. The first part will include $404 million for construction of new buildings so they can have seats for the new students. The measure will appear on the April ballot. If approved, it will add an estimated 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to property tax bills in the district.

The bond would include funding for three new elementary schools (two in Redmond and one in Kirkland), one new middle school in the Redmond area, an addition to Lake Washington High School, and the modernization of Juanita High School, which will include making room for a science and technology magnet program on that campus.

Board members debated the relative merits of placing the bond measure on the ballot in April versus November. In the end, they chose April so they don’t lose too much momentum from the nearly-successful February ballot, and so they don’t run into the ballot overload, which can turn off voters in November.

District officials were quick to point out that the new schools will not eliminate all of the district’s capacity problems. There will still be students in portable classrooms, although the district’s reliance on them will diminish.

Deputy Superintendent Jeanine Fogard estimated that if the bond is approved, there will be a 56 percent reduction in portables at the elementary-school level and a 73 percent reduction at the middle-school level. Portables could actually be eliminated at the high-school level.


They just built it

The school board also discussed two of the criticisms leveled at the previous bond package surrounding items that will be in the new package. One is that the district is looking for money to expand Lake Washington High School when it was just opened in 2011.

Fogard explained that Lake Washington High was planned in 2006, when high schools housed grades 10-12. Since then the district has moved to four-year high schools, simultaneously shifting sixth-graders to middle schools from elementary schools. While this helped with the space crunch at the elementary level, it has forced some squeezing at high schools.

One of the other major criticisms of the previous bond was it called for tearing down and rebuilding schools instead of remodeling them. That is still the plan for Juanita High School under the new bond.

Officials explained that when Juanita was built in 1971, it was en vogue among school designers to have so-called “open classrooms,” which had a minimal number of interior walls.

Officials around the country quickly realized that system doesn’t work. Locally, that meant retrofitting walls into Juanita High School.

The retrofit caused problems of its own, such as a heating system that doesn’t work efficiently and inadequate common spaces. Additionally, the building is about 26,000 square feet smaller than what district guidelines call for. Buildings of that era can also contain things like asbestos, PCBs and lead, which are now recognized as unhealthy.

“It was also built in a time when we built buildings cheap,” said board member Nancy Bernard. “When we get to the point where we say it’s the end of the life of the building, we really do mean it.”

Board members say they have done cost-effectiveness studies, and simply tearing buildings down and restarting is the best option. It will not only improve the buildings, but also add student capacity.

Board President Jackie Pendergrass also took issue with some who said they wouldn’t tear down a home after only 40 years. School buildings, particularly those inhabited by a small army of teens, tend to wear down a bit differently than a private home, Pendergrass said.

“I don’t think you can compare a school to a house,” she said.


The second half

Lake Washington school officials plan to spend the next few years evaluating how they decide which schools should be modernized, and what the priorities are in school construction.

The current system started largely from a plan developed in 1998. Under the plan, the district would evaluate a building every 30-40 years to see if it was still in good shape physically, and if it was still designed to meet the program needs of educators.

The district developed a four-phase plan of modernization where, every eight years, the district would come to voters to ask for bond funds to renovate old schools. The first two phases were approved by voters, but a 2010 bond to fund the third phase failed. A number of those projects were placed on the 2014 bond, which also failed.

Now officials are going to consider if the system still works.

Superintendent Traci Pierce suggested that the district work with the community to see how it should go about modernizing schools in the future and what it should focus on.

Board members seemed pleased with the plan.

“Just because you started it doesn’t mean you can’t course-correct,” said board member Chris Carlson.

Officials plan to have a larger community discussion before coming back for another bond that would fund modernization, possibly in 2018.

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