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LWSD school board votes to include $404 million bond on April ballot
Just one week after the $755 million Lake Washington School District (LWSD) bond officially failed, the school board of directors voted to put a smaller bond on the April ballot.
Working on a March 7 deadline for the April 22 special election, the board met on Monday to discuss the next steps for the current and future overcrowding issue that schools in Kirkland, Redmond and Sammamish face.
"Current enrollment is nearing our total capacity," said district spokeswoman Kathryn Reith, adding that enrollment is around 26,000 students. "We're expecting 4,000 more students in the next eight years."
After a lengthy discussion, the board unanimously passed Resolution 2178, which calls for a $404 million bond measure.
If passed by voters, residents with the district average house value of $495,000 would pay approximately $124 a year in property taxes over the next 20 years.
“We heard concerns from the community about the overall size of the February bond measure," said Jackie Pendergrass, president of the LWSD board of directors. "We are facing growth and overcrowding in our schools today. These projects are the ones that are needed now to reduce current overcrowding and keep up with the rapid growth in our enrollment.”
The $404 million bond would fund the construction of three new elementary schools, two in Redmond and one in Kirkland; a new middle school; a new westside STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) focused school on the Juanita High School (JHS) campus; the rebuild of JHS; and an addition to Lake Washington High School. The bond would also leave some funds for future capital projects.
“The district needs to act immediately to address our urgent and critical need for additional classroom space," said Superintendent Dr. Traci Pierce. "The board’s plan allows the district to first address the immediate need for additional space, and then to engage the community around the longer term need to continue to modernize our aging school facilities.”
This current bond will not fund an eastside internationally focused choice school, the addition to Eastlake High School in Sammamish and the modernization of five schools: Kamiakin Middle School and Peter Kirk Elementary in Kirkland, Evergreen Middle School and Rockwell Elementary in Redmond, and Mead Elementary in Sammamish.
Those improvements would have been funded, had the previous February bond passed."I think they had a difficult decision and I think they looked at the alternatives and said this is an important and critical enough issue that they need to take action," said Jeanne Large, a Kirkland resident who attended the meeting. "They made the appropriate changes to back off on those things, which are not immediate and can be taken care of four years from now."
A second bond with an undetermined amount will likely go before voters in 2018 to complete the third phase the original bond was planned for.
Mark Stuart and others on the board grappled with the decision to put the bond on the November ballot versus the April ballot because they feared that might not allow enough time to do an appropriate campaign.
Ultimately, the fear of supporters losing momentum and the $21 million hit for delaying the construction projects prompted the board to stick with the schedule and try to get a bond passed as soon as possible.
"I really believe this is a crisis-mode decision," Pendergrass said. " … One of the things I'm worried about in delaying (the bond on the ballot) is that it will water down the message … We really need this to happen so we know where we're putting kids."
Redmond resident Jane Wither told the board she's experienced the problems the district is facing.
Wither's oldest daughter attends Stella Schola Middle School and her youngest is finishing up fifth grade at Rockwell Elementary.
"As a Rockwell family, we witnessed firsthand the impact of overcrowding," Wither said, who is Rockwell PTA member. "We also understand what positive impact school modernization can have on our students and community at large, especially with the Stella Schola and Rose hill Middle School modernization project."
Although the board voted to exclude the modernization measures in this bond, Wither advised the district to reframe the conversation on why the bond is so needed. Large, who promoted the propositions by waving flags on Central Way in Kirkland last month, said the new bond campaign should make sure people know the positive and negative impacts of not passing the bond.
If the bond doesn't pass, the district would be forced to reduce or eliminate all-day kindergarten, double shift kindergarten through 12th grade, which means the school would operate in two shifts so more students can be taught in less space. They would have to add portables "wherever possible," which cost $300,000 each, they would have to change delivery models for district programs, re-boundary and/or change to a school year calendar.
During the meeting, district staff presented an analysis of why voters didn't pass the bond in a 60 percent supermajority vote. The final vote was 57.79 percent in favor of the $755 million bond.
After analyzing voter data, officials discovered that 5.68 percent of Lake Washington School District voters didn't vote "yes" or "no" on the bond even though they voted on the other measures.
"The assumption is people failed to turn the ballot over," Deputy Superintendent Janene Fogard said, noting that other school district measures on the back of the King County ballot also had less votes.
But in a districtwide survey of 400 residents, district officials learned that 23 percent of people who voted against the bond said it was because it was simply too expensive. Another 16 percent said the reason they voted against it was because it was a tax burden. "Peter Kirk Elementary can last decades more if not a century with proper maintenance and large repairs," said Mike Nykreim, chair of the propositions "1-2, not 3" committee, referring to the modernization measures. "This whole structure of tearing down schools and replacing them has got to end."
Nykreim said he and the business owners that were a part of the committee were concerned about the school construction expenditures. He believes they can be built for a cheaper amount.
Kirkland resident Dave Griffin said the district should look at the economic impact in that the district would be taking "hundreds of dollars out of people's pockets for schools."
"I think we need to spend those dollars very, very carefully and make sure the structures are used fully and we get really good use out of them," Griffin said. "I've talked to many neighbors who do not plan on tearing down their houses when they hit 40-41 years old but they look at maintaining and getting full value and use out of those structures for as long as they feasibly can."
Pendergrass responded that schools aren't in the same realm of public facilities, which have different permitting requirements, among many other factors. "We asked for a lot," said school board director Christopher Carlson at the meeting. "Why did we ask for a lot? Because we need a lot … We are not saying we asked for things that we don't need, it's just the things that we need in the next four years cost a lot less than the sticker shock of three-quarters of a billion dollars."
Matt Loschen, who lives on Union Hill, just outside of the City of Redmond but within the LWSD, sent the Reporter an email regarding his feelings on the bond measure. His daughter is a senior at Redmond High School and won't benefit from the bond, but his neighbor's children will reap the rewards if the bond passes.
"We parents are used to sacrificing for kids. Sure, I wanted the bond to pass in February so we could get busy with something else … I’d love the giant pile of campaign signs in my yard to just disappear. But the needs of our children aren’t going to disappear until we pass the bond," wrote the retired former Microsoft employee.
"Anyone who has volunteered in public schools knows that LWSD is an incredibly efficient steward of the public’s tax dollars … they put the private sector to shame. The size of the bond is just a reflection of the size of the challenge we’re throwing at our school system. Growth is hard. That’s why we all need to pitch in to ensure a bright future for our kids and our community," Loschen added.
For information on the April 22 special election, visit www.kingcounty.gov/elections/election-info/2014/201404.aspx.