After three failed attempts, Lake Washington School District has placed a new construction measure on the ballot, asking voters to spend $398 million to build a new Juanita High School and several other schools.
Margaret Mead Elementary School in Sammamish doesn’t have a cafeteria or even extra space inside to serve hot lunch. Instead, the children line up in a breezeway to pick up their food before returning to their classrooms to eat. A net strung over the outdoor courtyard keeps crows away.
Six-hundred students cram into Mead’s six modular, 1979 buildings designed for 450.
The shortage of classrooms extends across the Lake Washington School District. Officials estimate they’ll need 168 portables next fall to accommodate all students.
“We have huge overcrowding,” said Ellen Drummond, a second-grade teacher at Mead. “We literally don’t have enough room.”
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To ease that crunch, the district is asking voters to approve a $398 million construction bond measure to rebuild two aging elementaries, Mead and Peter Kirk; and build a new Juanita High School, a new middle school and two new elementaries. The measure, which will be on the April 26 ballot, will maintain the tax rate that local property owners now pay for schools — $3.30 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $1,650 annually for a $500,000 home.
This is the fourth time the district’s leaders and supporters have tried to get money to build new schools. The first was in 2010, and since then, the district has grown by about 625 students a year. An additional 2,200 students are expected by 2020.
“I don’t know if the district would use the word crisis, but a lot of our schools are over capacity,” said Eric Campbell, a parent and member of the bond campaign’s executive committee. “It’s hugely important that we pass this.”
But other parents and community members oppose the measure, saying the district isn’t building enough new schools to address the overcrowding and should be remodeling and expanding Mead, Kirk and Juanita rather than paying more to rebuild them.
“It’s such an expensive bond measure and it addresses so little,” said Susan Wilkins, who helped write the statement against the measure for the voters guide. She noted that the bond would build three new schools in Redmond but add none in Kirkland or Sammamish.
“There should be a match between the new buildings and where the growth is expected,” said Wilkins, who served on the district’s long-range planning task force.
In 2010, many attributed the defeat of a $234 million bond measure to the recession. Four years later, the district tried to gain ground on the overcrowding by running a $755 million bond measure that would have raised taxes significantly. It received 58 percent approval, just short of the required 60 percent, but a trimmed-down $404 million measure later that year failed by even more.
Those defeats prompted the district to regroup. It organized a 63-member citizen task force that met for almost a year to review the district’s long-term facility needs and financing options. The group agreed on the need to build more schools across the district. It also recommended that while the new construction be high quality, it should also be cost-effective, said Campbell, who also served on the task force.
The district plans to run additional bond measures in 2018, 2022 and 2026 to address ongoing needs while phasing in the construction projects as existing bond measures expire in order to keep taxes at the same rate.
Lake Washington Superintendent Traci Pierce said the decisions on whether to rebuild or remodel existing schools were based on recommendations of construction and design experts, as well as a comparison of what it would cost to bring an existing building up to current academic and structural standards versus the cost of building new.
Juanita High School, built in 1971 as an open-concept building without interior walls, was remodeled in 1985 but still lacks interior windows, adequate ventilation or even enough bathrooms for its 1,400 students, Pierce said. An additional 300 students are expected by 2021, when the new, larger high school would be completed under the proposed bond measure.
Pierce said security is an issue at the high school because the current design has multiple entry points. New schools, she said, typically have one entry that can be more easily monitored and secured in an emergency.
“A big part of the new Juanita High School is the safety piece,” she said.
Mark Stuart, a School Board member and parent of a Juanita High student with autism, said a new, larger high school would also improve the quality of education for many special-needs students.
“A lot of these kids need intensive services, sometimes including multiple aides. They’re tripping over each other now,” he said.
Opponents of the bond measure say the Juanita High School building is another example of a solidly built school that could be renovated for far less than the estimated $145 million for a new school. Paul Hall, a retired school architect and district resident who worked on the design of the 1985 remodel, is one of them. He urged the district to “reconsider its wasteful agenda of replacing buildings in lieu of modernization.”
Other districts in King County with bond or levy measures on the April ballot are Issaquah ($533.5 million), Kent ($252 million) and Vashon Island (about$4 million).
Two Snohomish County districts also hope to pass school-funding measures. Everett is seeking support for a six-year safety, building and technology levy and a construction bond ($149.7 million). Marysville is running a school-improvement bond ($230 million).