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School district proposes tearing down — not renovating — main high school building

Brian Carter, an architect for Integrus, the firm designing the new high school, talks to the school board Thursday night. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Brian Carter, an architect for Integrus, the firm designing the new high school, talks to the school board Thursday night.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

Vashon School District officials have put forward a new plan for the rebuild of Vashon High School: Rather than renovate Building A, they now say it would be cheaper to tear down the oddly configured classroom building and replace it with a new structure.

The school board will hold a public hearing about the district's new plan on June 23. If the district goes through with the proposal, it would mean the $47.7 million plan, approved by voters earlier this year, would result in a completely new high school, save for the athletic facilities.

The decision to offer up a new plan came after meetings with Skanska, the general contractor, where officials from the firm questioned the district's desire to renovate rather than tear down Building A, the high school's main building.

An analysis by the firm showed that erecting a new building instead of renovating the existing one would bring project costs down by about $70,000 and shorten the construction timeline from 26 months to 18 months.

It would make for a more energy efficient campus, saving at least $18,000 in annual energy costs, money that comes from the operating fund, the pot of money that covers teachers' salaries, textbooks and other basic needs. It would also reduce risk, the firm said: Renovating an existing building can lead to surprises that drive up costs.

At the school board meeting Thursday night, Michael Soltman, the school district's superintendent, and Eric Gill, the district's capital projects manager, told the board and about 20 people attending the meeting that when Skanska first said a new building might make more sense, they made it clear it could not cost the district any more money.

"I said, 'This sounds great, but we have to meet our budget (and) stay on schedule. ... We also have to demonstrate that the cost of ownership will be less,'" Gill said.

"The team has been working diligently. They met all of these goals and exceeded them."

Soltman, in an interview, said the fact that the contractor approached the district and board with this idea speaks to the logic of the approach they're taking — a model whereby the contractor is at the table early on in the process, rather than after architects have done all their work and the district is ready to build.

"This is one of the real benefits in bringing the general contractor on early. They could do an analysis of our assumptions," he said.

But at the board meeting, some board members wondered why the school district's consultants hadn't determined the cost-effectiveness of a complete tear down of Building A earlier. Steve Ellison, a board member, said he recalls discussions about the issue and remembers being told that it would be costlier to build new.

"Why can we do this now?" he asked.

Gill told him that politics played a role last year as the district struggled to find a way to make a second bond measure more palatable to the voters. "Tearing down Building A became a political hot potato," he said.

Eric Temp, vice president of Skanska, who attended Thursday's board meeting, said he, too, heard that it was a political decision. "We fretted a lot about it before we brought it to you," he said.

But Laura Wishik, another board member, said both during the meeting and in an interview Friday that she, too, recalls a thorough vetting of the issue before putting the measure before voters in February.

"I wish we had gotten this information sooner. I think that would have saved us a lot of time and effort," she said.

At the same time, she said, she found the contractor's new assessment compelling. "I have to rely on these experts. We hired them to do the job," she added.

Temp, at the board meeting, said the new approach makes enormous sense. The plan voters approved in February entailed building a new 36,000-square-foot classroom building while renovating the 42,000-foot Building A. But Temp said he and his colleagues feared the setup could result in a divided school.

By maintaining Building A — a concrete-walled structure made up of three circular wings joined together by a central area — the high school would continue to have two entrances rather than a clear main entrance, Temp said.

"We worry that you'd have two schools and maybe even two classes of teachers," he added, noting that the old building would be less desirable than the new one.

Under the new proposal, the site where Building A is now located would be landscaped and the campus would be centered further east, where some of the older buildings are now situated. A new auditorium — now located in Building A — would be constructed, with music and art rooms likely adjacent to it. And instead of one new classroom building, there would be two, although the total square footage of the new campus would be less — since the oddly configured Building A has a lot of wasted space in it, Gill said.

"This allows the design team to be very creative and have better functioning and adjecent spaces," Gill said.

What's more, Building A is 85 percent concrete, all of which can be recycled, Temp said.

At the school board meeting, some audience members enthusiastically supported the new plan. Martha Woodard, a humanities teacher at VHS, said she's worked in Building A for 27 years.

"And it's been my hope for 27 years that that building would go away," she said. "This would be a dream come true."

When it comes time to detonate the structure, she added, she'd like to push the button.

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