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Split Snoqualmie school board comes full circle on freshman campus, bond

Snoqualmie Middle School teacher Jerry Hilburn spoke with verve about how much he hated to see the district so divided, and what a
Snoqualmie Middle School teacher Jerry Hilburn spoke with verve about how much he hated to see the district so divided, and what a 'horrible idea' the annexation would be. 'First we're told the high school is overcrowded, then we're told 'no, it's for programs.' Well, which is it?' he asked.
— image credit: Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo

A new bond, new middle school boundaries, and a new way of handling the ninth grade transition into high school are all becoming certainties for the Snoqualmie Valley School District. With a unanimous, if reluctant vote on some board members’ parts, the Snoqualmie Valley School Board, at nearly midnight Thursday, Feb. 8, ordered a bond issue for construction of a new middle school, in time for the February 2013 primary election.

That vote was immediately followed by a 3-2 decision to proceed with the district’s 2010 commitment to annex Snoqualmie Middle School into the Mount Si High School campus, and convert it to a freshman-only campus, called the Freshman Learning Center (FLC). Board president Dan Popp and members Marci Busby and Scott Hodgins voted in favor. Geoff Doy and Carolyn Simpson were opposed.

The annexation dominated most of the evening’s discussion, which began at 6:15 p.m. with the board hearing public comment on the proposed plan. Nearly 100 people filled the room to comment, listen, applaud and occasionally interrupt speakers with angry comments from the opposing side. At issue were the repercussions: Giving nearly 500 freshman their own dedicated campus and staff versus isolating them from the opportunities they might have at the high school; and the transition back to two middle schools for 1,500 sixth-through eighth graders, with its potential for increased programming options at the now under-capacity Chief Kanim Middle School, as well as the potential for student safety issues associated with overcrowding.

The arguments were emotional, logical, and, in a few cases, theatrical, as speakers played to the crowd, and the crowd played along. Kim Hagen, reminding the board that “we’re all in this together” and asking them to proceed with the annexation, got thunderous applause when, mid-sentence, she got a signal from Popp that she had only 30 seconds left of her two allotted minutes to speak.

“This is about what’s best for our children, and what’s best for our children now is not to wait another—30 seconds."

Laurie Hollasch, a Redmond resident, called on the board to stay with its plans for the FLC, and presented a letter with that plea, signed by 349 people. Eric Ploof, also of Redmond, warned the board the district would lose its “diamond in the rough” quality if it did not create the freshman campus. Miranda Thorpe urged the board to proceed, saying Chief Kanim Middle School is underutilized right now, and can handle the additional students that would come if Snoqualmie Middle School were closed. Anne Stedman of North Bend, a member of the High School Education Program Study Committee, told the board “Ninth grade matters.”

Former school board member Caroline Loudenback, a North Bend resident, stood by her vote to proceed with the annexation, then volunteered to “put a face” on why “freshmen are different.”

“That’s my daughter, three Fs her freshman year," she said. "She took hits to the head, she had to give up soccer which was her passion. I have an older daughter… who sailed through high school. Everything went right. This isn’t a decision for the kids who are going to make it regardless.”

David Spring, of North Bend, noted that there might be room for more students at Chief Kanim, but there was not at Twin Falls.

“Do not harm the 600 children at Twin Falls Middle School just to create a ninth grade campus,” he said.

Many parents referred to the 2003 bond that built Twin Falls Middle School, stressing smaller middle schools.

“We voted as taxpayers, as parents, to have three middle schools,"  Lanice Gillard of Snoqualmie said. "I don’t see how we can honestly let our only middle school in Snoqualmie go to the high school, when it is not overcrowded.”

Snoqualmie resident Laurie Gibbs raised several issues with the proposed FLC, including people’s apparent preference for smaller middle schools, a lack of widespread public support for the FLC —“the people are divided, this room is divided!” she said—and deficiencies in the process that led to the proposed annexation. She said she’d read the district’s reports and analysis, and found no information on the potential impact of the change on middle school students.

Also, the two committees whose recommendations led to the FLC plan, the long-term facilities planning committee and the high school education program study committee, “did not include staff members from SMS, Twin Falls, or Chief Kanim Middle School. This would lead me to suspect the impact this decision would have on middle school learning has not been fully vetted.”

Several SMS teachers also spoke up about not being included in the decisions, and having no information about what the change might mean to them in the future. Science teacher Jerry Hilburn first said he hated seeing the district in such a divided state. He called the plan “a horrible idea” and, with a reference to the prophet Cassandra of Greek legend, made his own prophesies:“The high school will not improve if we do this. The problems with the high school are structural,” he said. The FLC won’t work, Hillburn said, and there are no successful examples to be found in the state.

“We have three great middle schools," Hillburn said. "But we’re going to have problems with those two big schools.”

Not all appeals were either for or against the FLC. Susan Livingston simply asked the board to make a decision based on facts and available information, rather than emotional speculation.

Paul Sprouse asked the board to commit, one way or another, to the number of middle schools it wanted. He said he supported the FLC, but was concerned about crowding the middle schools, as well as the disruption to students if another school gets built in the next few years. He said if another middle school were built in 2014 or 2015, a current SMS sixth grader might switch schools four times in five years.

Many board members seemed to welcome the public comments, and referred to it as they stated their own positions on the FLC, sometimes with a little heat. Doy, Hodgins and Popp all emphasized that they wanted to have three middle schools in the district, however only Doy felt there was time to wait for another middle school to be built before proceeding with the annexation. Doy said he still had many questions, but liked the concept of the FLC, although he didn’t think it needed to be in its own campus. He also wished he’d known some of the information presented that night a year ago, implying that he could have been the one vote that would have passed the bond last February.

Simpson emphasized that some information had only become available that night, and she felt it was inappropriate to call for a vote that same night. She added that she felt the FLC was an experimental idea, and she wasn’t willing to sacrifice middle school education for it. After the meeting, she said “To do something this unique and innovative, we need to have a lot of people on board.” During the meeting, she made it clear that she felt the plan had not been thoroughly communicated to and cleared by the public.

Popp argued that that work had already been done, and he didn’t want to wait any longer. He and Busby agreed with Hodgins on his point that “the greatest need is at the high school."

However, Hodgins was also adamant about having another middle school, and asked to table the vote on the annexation until they could discuss and vote on the bond issue.

"I think we do need another middle school… I don't want to leave here tonight without that second motion (for the bond)," he said.

Simpson noted that the district only needed another middle school if they were committing to taking over SMS as a freshman campus, adding that she wasn’t ready to vote on the issue, when Popp, saying, “The way forward is to make a decision,” called for a vote.

Popp told her, “I don’t believe you will ever move forward on it.”

Audience members called Popp to task for several of his comments during the discussion, but the board president later defended himself, saying he was speaking from the heart, as were many of the people in the room for the meeting.

“There was a lot of emotion in the room, on both sides of the issue,” he said. “I welcome public comment, but I don’t welcome (audience members) shouting at each other in the board meeting.”

Simpson also expressed a hope for improved meeting decorum, and for the board, “I think it’s really important to go through better decision-making practice than what was exhibited last night,” she said.

Popp knows the board was divided, but he plans to ask them to unify again, in making plans for the FLC and in ensuring that the high standards set at the middle school level are not compromised. To community members disappointed by the decision, he said “I understand their concerns. We will work in every direction to alleviate those concerns.”

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