Students feel cramped and they need more space. That is the message many Redmond High School (RHS) students are echoing throughout the community as the voting deadline for the Lake Washington School District (LWSD) levy approaches.
The rain showers on a recent evening were not enough to deter more than a dozen RHS students from trying to garner support for the upcoming levy, a vote-by-mail election that ends on Feb. 8. Members of the school’s Associated Student Body (ASB), drama department and others gathered at the intersection of Avondale Road and Union Hill Road to hold up signs encouraging people to vote yes on the $65.4 million measure that would address the overcrowding issue the district is facing.
“It’s really important this passes,” said 18-year-old Tian Kisch.
The ASB vice president said that from a student perspective things are difficult at RHS. She said it’s hard to get around the hallways and get to class on time; the school has added one more lunch period for a total of three, but students still overflow from the cafeteria into the hallways.
In addition to building classrooms at Redmond and Eastlake high schools, the six-year levy would allow LWSD to build a new secondary choice school that will focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
Kathryn Reith, LWSD communications director, said the district predicts that by fall 2014, it will have 77 spaces available at the elementary level and 240 free spaces at the junior high level, but will be short 1,025 spaces at the high school level.
“(The spaces) are not at the right level,” she said. “It’s not always where the students are.”
The overcrowding has been due to a number of factors: a recent spike in King County births, continuous local development and home sales and younger families moving into the area, especially the Redmond Ridge neighborhood.
LWSD is shifting its grade configuration to K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 in the fall 2012 for academic purposes, but the change also will help with the overcrowding issue. According to the district website, 21 elementary schools would need to find space for 1,561 extra students if the grade organization remains the same. With the 2012 change, the district would still need to accommodate additional students, but the bulk will be at the high school level and the number would be closer to 800 students.
Kisch, who is graduating this year but has a sister who will be attending Eastlake next year, said the need for new classrooms is especially crucial because the high schools will be welcoming freshmen as well as the usual sophomores come fall 2012.
Byron Shutz, a Redmond resident whose children attend John James Audubon Elementary and Redmond Junior High School, is impressed by Kisch and her fellow students’ efforts to gain support.
“I think it’s a great reflection of our society,” he said. “High school students can play a very important role. I think it’s terrific.”
Shutz is also a member of the Lake Washington Citizens Levy Committee, an organization that was formed in the 1970s and is made up of PTSA members and other community members. The committee’s role is to raise awareness of district funding measures such as the upcoming levy, provide accurate information for the public and ask taxpayers to vote yes.
He said just about any parent in the district could attest for the overcrowding issue. Although it is concentrated at certain levels, schools all over the district are feeling it.
Paul Hall understands and respects the district’s overcrowding issue, but is still against the levy. The Kirkland resident does not have any children enrolled in the district, but has lived in the area since the late 1960s and his three sons graduated from Lake Washington High School.
Hall said now is not the best time to spend extravagantly. He suggests instead of asking taxpayers for more money the district should use some of the money from its modernization program, which was approved by voters with bonds in 1998 and 2006, to build the new classrooms. Instead of modernizing schools, the district has built new schools in many cases and Hall feels this has been an inefficient use of funds.
“I feel it’s extremely wasteful,” he said.
NEW SCHOOLS, NEW DISTRICT
Reith said throughout the modernization process, LWSD considers many options with each school. She said the needed renovations can range from superficial such as new floors to deeper such as updating utility systems so they are up to code. Sometimes, however, a new building is the best route because older buildings were not designed to accommodate current educational practices. For example, Reith said, nowadays same-grade students from different classrooms work collaboratively, but old buildings usually don’t have a common space where the students can gather and still be supervised by a teacher.
She also said if a school’s renovations cost 80 percent of what it would cost to build a new school, the district would build a new school. The building would have a longer life and fewer issues are likely to crop up during construction and later down the line.
“Keep in mind that if we build a new building next to the old school building, we can still hold school in the old building,” Reith said. “If an extensive remodel happens, we usually will need to find space for the students and teachers in another building for the year or more that construction takes, which we just don’t have. That adds on to the construction cost.”
She added that in order to redirect funds from the modernization program, the school board would need to hold a hearing to ask the community how the funds should be used.
Another reason Hall opposes the levy is because he said the bulk of the money would be used toward the STEM school, but not necessarily classrooms since a new school would need things such as administration offices and a cafeteria. He said more classrooms should just be added to the existing schools.
While this is a possibility, Reith said it’s not desirable because they want to keep high school populations around 2,000. Just adding classrooms would bring populations up to 2,500.
Longtime Kirkland resident Richard Ekins opposes the levy because he thinks the district has overspent in the past and it should be more efficient with the resources it already has. For example, he said the building of the new Lake Washington High School was unnecessary.
“The old one could have been remodeled at far less cost,” he said.
Ekins would also like to see Kirkland break off into its own district.
“I think a smaller school district would be more efficient,” he said. “Maybe even one district for each high school.”
According to the LWSD website, a homeowner with a $500,000 house — the average value of homes within the district — would pay about $13 a month for the levy for six years.
The cost of the levy does not matter to Martin Leahy, who lives in the Redmond and Sammamish area, because he, his wife and his oldest son have already mailed in their ballots and voted against the levy. He said the state school system does not prepare students for college and a post-high school life.
“That’s the failure of the Washington state school system,” he said. “They don’t deliver results.”
Leahy, who enrolled all his children in private school, said parents should be more involved in their children’s education and if public schools need funds, the parents who can afford it should donate money and time to the cause. He likened the levy to panhandling.
“If the Washington state school system is looking for a handout, the answer is no,” Leahy said.
According to the LWSD website, if the levy does not pass, some things the district may do to accommodate the growth are changing school boundaries to shift students to schools with space, looking into repurposing the modernization money and double shifting at Redmond and Eastlake high schools.
It is the latter that Kisch, the RHS student, really wishes does not happen. She said having half of the students go to school in the morning and half in the afternoon disrupts a lot of things such as extracurricular activities. She added that the first half would have difficulty functioning so early and many students in the second half would probably have to get up early to finish up homework because they’d be getting home from school so late.
Kisch also said the high school experience is a cornerstone of adolescence and double shifting would taint that experience.
“The foundation of high school is destroyed,” Kisch said. “There’s so much to be said about someone going to high school at a normal time and being able to participate in extracurricular activities.”