North Bend City Council continues voicing frustration with school district

For second year, council criticizes district during discussion of impact fees.

In what is becoming a trend, members of the North Bend City Council voiced frustrations with the Snoqualmie Valley School District over what they say is a lack of attention being paid to the city’s two elementary schools.

During a presentation of the district’s 6-year capital facility plan at an Oct. 4 council meeting, councilmembers, for a second consecutive year, said the district has done little to address overcrowding and an excess of portable classrooms at Opstad and North Bend Elementary.

SVSD officials present its capital facilities plan annually to the four legislative bodies that operate in its district boundary. The presentation comes when the district looks to make an adjustment to the revenue it receives from city impact fees.

Typically, these requests are approved unanimously, but SVSD’s request passed by a 4-2 vote, with Councilmembers Jonathan Rosen and Brenden Elwood voting against the measure. Elwood, who has been among the most vocal in his critique, said his vote was in protest, citing a lack of concrete plans for improvement.

“I will not be supporting this particular motion tonight, to demonstrate my displeasure,” he said. “Our community has largely been ignored.”

Councilmembers said North Bend schools had not been touched in decades, while North Bend Mayor Rob McFarland said that portable classrooms have been at North Bend Elementary for at least 25 years.

“We’ve made it very clear to the district we do not favor additional portables until at minimum we have seen a bond issued,” he said.

A district committee is currently working on a 20-year long-range facility plan that includes improvements at North Bend schools and potential plans for a bond measure in 2023, according to a committee presentation to the school board in April.

At the meeting Oct. 4, SVSD Assistant Superintendent Ryan Stokes said the current thinking for that plan is a phased approach done in roughly 5 to 6 year increments.

The first phase would include rebuilding North Bend and Fall City Elementary as well as Snoqualmie Middle School. That could potentially open a new North Bend Elementary by September 2026, according to the committee presentation. A second phase would, among other things, address a replacement for Opstad Elementary.

Stokes said putting the two North Bend schools in separate phases would give the district time to reevaluate and consider if they need to build a third elementary school in North Bend.

“If you were to put North Bend and Opstad in the same phase you would lock yourself into what size those buildings need to be,” he said. “[Waiting] gives you another shot at looking at demographer projections in 5 or 6 years and saying ‘is that still serviceable by Opstad or does it need to be serviced by a third elementary.’”

Conor Laffey, a district spokesperson, said a definitive plan for a 2023 bond proposal has not been finalized. The district plans to hold information sessions with city officials and residents before the school board determines bond timing, he said.

“We acknowledge that we have aging buildings and are excited to work on improving them to build better learning spaces for our students,” he said. “Our top priority is putting together a bond proposal that addresses our aging buildings, continues to increase school safety, removes some of our portables, and plans for future growth in our communities.”

While the council’s frustrations continue to surface during impact fee discussions, the money those fees provide the district for meaningful improvements in North Bend are limited.

Impact fees, a one time revenue source the city generates on new development projects, can be used to make improvements on school buildings but have limitations and only pay for a portion of the growth they are created from, according to the district capital plan.

The district’s permanent improvements are done through bonds, a ballot measure that requires the approval of 60% of district voters. Getting support for those improvements, however, can sometimes be a challenge.

“Schools tend to be overcapacity before communities support a bond,” Laffey said. “Over the past 20 years, our total enrollment has increased substantially, and until a bond is passed, districts are forced to use portable classrooms to bridge the gap.”

The district passed its last bond in 2015 in response to unprecedented growth on Snoqualmie Ridge. Those funds built the new Mount Si High School and Timber Ridge, an elementary school in Snoqualmie. Prior to that its newest building was Twin Falls Middle School in North Bend, which opened in 2008.

At the time of the 2015 bond, Mount Si was unable to hold all four grade levels, the current Snoqualmie Middle School was being used as a freshman campus campus and a large portion of Snoqualmie Ridge students were attending either North Bend or Fall City elementary due to capacity constraints at Snoqualmie schools.

Timber Ridge’s construction helped remove roughly 150 Snoqualmie Ridge students from North Bend Elementary, but was already at full capacity when it opened in 2016. Today nearly 11% of its students are housed in portable classrooms.

It is emblematic of challenges being felt throughout the district. A lack of space, fast growth and new state laws forced the district to place a significant number of portables at its schools.

Today, the district is still playing catch-up as all six SVSD elementary schools are over their permanent capacity and served by portables, the oldest portables being at Fall City and Snoqualmie Elementary.

North Bend and Fall City Elementary are currently serving the highest rate of students in portables at 38%. While Opstad sits lower, at 16%, it is closer to reaching its overall capacity than North Bend Elementary.

Last summer, to prevent overcrowding at Opstad, the school board voted to move the Dahlgren property, an upcoming 212 unit multifamily housing project, out of its service boundary and into the boundary of North Bend Elementary.

While the population of students at North Bend and Opstad is actually down about 135 students compared to a decade ago, the district has continued to add portables. Laffey said those additions were in response to state requirements for lower K-3 class sizes and all-day kindergarten. When that legislation was passed, the district needed roughly 60 additional classrooms district-wide.