School board agrees to outline of $70 million building plan

Vashon Island's school board agreed Thursday night to the outlines of a plan for new or renovated district facilities that appears less expensive than the one proposed three years ago but that might still lead to a new high school building.

By so doing, the board overcame “a major hurdle,” said Board Chair Bob Hennessey, finding preliminary agreement on an issue that has been contentious in both the community and among board members.

“Getting the five of us (board members) on the same page” was very significant, Hennessey said.

Also noteworthy was the board’s endorsement of a $70 million limit to the total cost of whatever plan the board creates.

But interviews after Thursday night’s meeting suggested that some board members disagreed on some fundamental issues. Board member Dan Chasan said it would be enough if the new plan “kept the rain out” — shorthand for a capital facilities approach that builds or renovates only when absolutely necessary while repairing or improving systems that aren’t working well. Hennessey, meanwhile, said he sees building and infrastructure improvements as a way to fundamentally enhance education in the 1,500-student district.

Said Hennessey about the “keeping the rain out” option, “If we do that, most of the fundamental problems about education would remain. We are trying to fix the educational system.”

The school board has been grappling with its aging buildings for years — ever since a previous board scrapped four multi-million-dollar proposals that didn’t appear to have sufficient support among Vashon voters. At the time, the highest of those proposals — dubbed the “Taj Mahal” by its critics — carried an $80 million price tag.

Now, the board is working to get a proposal nailed down in time for a February 2009 election. After Thursday’s meeting, Hennessey said he’s optimistic they’ll meet the timeline.

“I was concerned that getting on the same page would not happen,” he said. “I was worried that it would take a great deal of time reaching some common ground, hus blowing a February (2009) election.”

The focus of the discussion last week was a draft of guidelines the board would send to the architects at McGranahan Associates, the same company hired to create the four options several years ago.

Board member Laura Wishik drafted the document, which included a statement of needs to be addressed as well as approaches that the architects should use in developing options.

The guidelines identified items the district “must” have in a new facilities plan as well those that board members consider “possible needs.”

The list of needed items centered on basic infrastructure, such as finding space for groups like the technology staff (currently housed in a portable) and improving building systems, such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Also included were toilets for all occupied buildings and correction of unsafe conditions.

The “possible” list contained some larger-ticket items, such as new buildings with classrooms designed to meet changing teaching methods.

Vashon High School principal Susan Hanson explained at a recent board meeting that the current method of collaborative teaching doesn’t fit the rote method for which the “A” building at the high school was built.

Board member John Osborne was explicit about his response to that problem: “We have a high school that’s at the end of its useful life.”

Also on the “possible” list were more expensive and long-desired items, such as a synthetic running track (the high school track team can’t have home meets because other teams refuse to run on its cinder surface) and a new theater (the current one is actually a large meeting room, not a theater).

The second part of the draft listed principles, about which there was little disagreement — including reuse of existing structures, increased efficiencies and sustainability.

The board adjusted the draft around the edges, for the most part, and by the end of the meeting seemed, as Hennessey said, on the same page.

But that may not last.

“The most important thing about last night was a concrete demonstration that the five of us are committed to moving forward and that there is a base level of agreement about what’s on the table and what’s not,” Hennessey said.

Chasan, however, who served on the board 18 years before returning last fall, agreed at the meeting to most of the items presented on Wishik’s list except that he thought it was impossible at this relatively early stage to know if the $70 million number was appropriate.

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