Snoqualmie Valley school district hears from public on high school bond proposal

Snoqualmie Valley School District leaders set out last week to gather public opinion on a potential $216 million bond. In a series of three public meetings, they asked voters if their proposal was right for Snoqualmie Valley, and if it would be approved in a future election.

In response, community members had their own questions: Which grade level has the most pressing facilities needs in the district? Why not split the bond into pieces, rather than risk failure as a package deal? What are you doing to mitigate the classroom crowding problems students are having now?

That was the tone of questions at the Thursday, Dec. 12 presentation at the district office.

School Board Director Carolyn Simpson began the presentation by telling the group of more than 30 citizens, “This is a long-term, comprehensive bond proposal that impacts every grade … and every school building in the district.”

The bond’s components are a sixth elementary school on Snoqualmie Ridge with a centralized preschool ($35.3 million), a complete rebuild of Mount Si High School that would yield a permanent capacity of 2,100 and preserve the freshman campus concept ($160 million), and a package of other facilities updates throughout the district ($20.2 million).

“The board believes that each one of these is high-priority,” Simpson said. “One is not higher priority than the other, because of the impact on every school in the district.”

Several audience members disputed that, citing an obvious need at the elementary level. A grandfather said his fourth-grade granddaughter was struggling in her class of 32. He asked what the district is doing about crowding now. Superintendent Joel Aune responded that in the short term, classroom crowding was caused by the level of state funding rather than a lack of capacity, and that increasing capacity now will enable the district to reduce class sizes in the future, should state funding increase.

Parent Rob McFarland asked about the district’s ability to absorb students from the nearly 500 new homes being planned in North Bend.

Business services director Ryan Stokes briefly reported on elementary capacity, which includes about one free classroom at each of the five elementary schools now. That’s at a class-size ratio of about 24:1 for grades K-3, he said, which state funding currently provides, although the state guideline is 17:1. Also, Stokes noted that school districts were expected to offer only full-day Kindergarten by 2018, which increased the need for classrooms.

“If we took our current enrollment projections, plus the full-day Kindergarten mandate, in 2018, we would need 20 additional classrooms,” Stokes said.  The sixth elementary would add 29 classrooms, however, reducing class sizes to just 21:1 would require 50 more classrooms by 2018.

“That math tells me we need another elementary school in North Bend,” McFarland responded.

Middle school parents also had their say about crowding, caused primarily by the transition to two middle schools this year, when the freshman campus opened in the former Snoqualmie Middle School. One mother of a middle school girl said the district was in “a real state of emergency,” because of the crowding.

“I hear every day about how she cannot learn, because she cannot concentrate. And to say that the freshman campus was a good idea? I think it’s wrong,” she said. Also, she said intervention at the freshman level was “way too late. You’re losing the kids in elementary, fourth grade and up, and then losing them even more in middle school.”

In the cost category, comments ranged from a joke about voter PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), to the recurring idea of splitting the bond into pieces, and a proposal to narrow the scope and lower the cost.

“I’d like to see the cost in the $1.90 range,” parent Ana Sotelo said, referring to the estimated $2.24 per $1,000 of assessed value that the bond would cost tax-payers. “I think it could be done… if we campaigned for this bond as just the necessaries.” She offered several examples of items that could be cut, such as soccer fields and the $4 million preschool. “If we could shave this to the $1.90s, and everyone was on board, it would trickle down from above, and we would pass it…. I think there’s a lot of extras on there, and we could get people with a ‘just the basics’ campaign.”

Anne Stedman asked if the district had considered a high school upgrade alone, saying “To build a brand-new middle school, a brand new elementary, and upgrade our current school is far less money. “

Upgrading the high school, though, is difficult, presenters said. Because the school is in a floodway, any significant updates to the building, calculated at $30 million or higher, would trigger a FEMA requirement to flood-proof the entire buildaiang.

“FEMA doesn’t want us to spend a lot of money on a building that can still be damaged by a major flood… so if we want to spend more than $30 million, and get more in terms of capacity, or facilities to drive new thinking and learning… we’d have to flood proof the building,” School Board Director Dan Popp said. He didn’t know how much flood-proofing alone would cost, but said it could dramatically increase the price for, say a $60 million remodel. “Suddenly that $60 million remodel is $100 million,” he said, “so if we’re spending $100 million to give it an upgrade, why not spend $160 million and get a brand new building?”

He added that this bond was "a 10-plus year fix," which is what voters have been asking the district for, rather than the district's running a bond every few years, which splitting this bond would result in. "The problem is, it's expensive," he said, and "at some point, we've got to stop saying, 'just the bare minimum please, just the bare minimum.' At some point we have to invest in the community facility that drives our kids' education. We must." Stedman argued that the real cost of the bond would be to the students going to school during the projects.

“They’re all going to be disrupted,” she said, “…they only get one shot, and I think you, as a board and a district, have an obligation to make it the least disruptive shot they can have.”

Participants were asked to make comments on exit slips collected after each presentation That data will be compiled and presented to the board for further discussion.

The district is also planning a phone survey in January.


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