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Residents want more information on new LWSD STEM school before proceeding

Local residents have a lot of questions about the high school Lake Washington School District (LWSD) is proposing to build across the street from Louisa May Alcott Elementary School in unincorporated King County.

The proposed school, a choice school focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), will house 675 students and is part of a six-year $65.4 million levy that was approved by voters in February. The measure addresses the district's issue of overcrowding and also includes building additional classrooms at Redmond and Eastlake high schools. The new school will cost about $26.5 million. The start of construction still has not been determined, but district officials said the goal is to have it open by fall of 2012, which would coincide with LWSD's shifts to a K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 grade configuration.

On Tuesday evening, LWSD held a public hearing at Alcott, located at 4213 228th Ave. N.E., to inform the community about the school, answer questions and gain feedback from residents.

While support for the school and its curriculum was clear, attendees had many concerns about its location and how it would affect their neighborhood.

ONE WAY IN AND OUT

One of the biggest concerns regarding the new STEM school was traffic flow. The entrance and exit to the school will be on 228th Avenue Northeast would worsen the traffic, which is already bad because the street is a dead end right off of the busy arterial, Highway 202.

"This site cannot support a school of this population," one woman said during the public comment portion of the meeting. "We need to be realistic about the traffic potential and the driving habits of the students going to this school."

She added that if things aren't done right the first time, it's not going to be easy to fix them.

Many people who attended the meeting were skeptical of the information provided that states certain adjustments such as staggering school start times should minimize the school's impact on traffic.

In addressing this concern, Ed Koltonowski of Gibson Traffic Consultants, the Everett-based company that conducted a study of the area's traffic, said elementary schools actually create more traffic per student because parents are driving onto campus to drop off or pick up their children and then driving off campus. Conversely, most drivers at a high school are students who drive onto campus, park and don't leave until the end of the day. Koltonowski added that because the school would accept students district wide, there will be buses, which would lessen the traffic.

This was met with scoffs as many people said high school students are unlikely to take a school bus if they can help it. The crowd also expressed their safety concerns about having new, inexperienced drivers so close to elementary school children who often walk to and from school.

Kim Yates added that teens are more willing to ride a Metro bus than a yellow bus, but the proposed location does not have any bus lines nearby.

Yates doesn't have children who attend school in the district, but her elderly mother lives near Alcott and said traffic from the school occasionally overflows into nearby neighborhoods. The potential overflow from one more school could block an aid car or other emergency services, Yates said.

After hearing people's concerns, both superintendent Chip Kimball and Koltonowski expressed their appreciation for the feedback as it will help them better define and design the school. Koltonowski said such public meetings help them get a better idea of what the community they are studying is really like.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

Something else people were concerned about was the school's impact on the natural environment and the animals inhabiting the area.

There will be no gym or play fields on campus, but the two-story building will still take up a lot space. The total size of the property, which the district owns, is almost 22 acres; the proposed school will be about 66,000 square feet and developed on 7.56 acres of that land.

Concerned residents said Alcott students use the forested area surrounding the school as an outdoor classroom and adding another building would take that away from them.

Kimball said in building the new school in the heavily forest area — much of which would remain wooded, according to the district's plans — the hope would be to continue the use of the readily available outdoor classroom with the older students as well.

Local residents also wanted to know if and how the new building would affect their water supply. The district has been working with the Union Hill Water Association, which serves the area. Frank Parchman, president of the association, said they are willing to work with LWSD, but as of Tuesday evening, need more information to be able to comment on the topic.

Parchman's request for more information was echoed among the crowd as people wanted more details about the studies conducted on various topics such as traffic and environmental impact. Most people at the meeting felt they needed to understand the issues more before the project could continue.

ALTERNATIVES AND OPTIONS

Meeting attendees also asked whether the district examined other areas in the district.

Yates suggested they build the school near Rose Hill Junior High School because it is more centrally located and with a number of Metro bus lines within a few blocks, more accessible to students who live further away. She said this is important because lower-income families are more likely to consider the school if they have an economically feasible mode of transportation. Yates lives near Rose Hill and said not all families can afford cars for their teens, which would be quite necessary if the STEM school was built near Alcott. As a result, the district is making it difficult for those students to attend the school.

"I think all kids should have the opportunity (to attend the STEM school)," she said.The location she suggested is where a field would be constructed as part of the district's modernization project for Rose Hill.

Kimball said LWSD looked at a number of locations for the new school, explaining that they picked the location near Alcott because the east side of the district is where the growth is.

"We build schools where there are kids," he said.

Kimball said they predict the new school, which will be geographically between Redmond and Eastlake high schools and accept students from the entire district based on a lottery system, will have a student population of about 60 percent from the east side and 40 percent from the west. He cited other choice schools in LWSD that support this trend of a population with a slightly higher number of students from the immediate area.

Kimball also said they are currently looking at various models on how the school will operate. From having all 675 students on campus all day to having 675 in the morning and another 675 in the afternoon with students attending their home school during their other half of the day, LWSD is looking at all options. Kimball said the latter, however, does not seem likely.

"Today, I don't believe that will be the case," he said.

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