School officials grapple with costs of makeover

An automobile metaphor was in the air at the most recent Vashon Island School District board meeting as school officials worked to make sense of the district’s need to improve the buildings where its 1,500 students gather each day.

“We can drive a Porsche or a Honda,” said Vashon High School teacher Colleen Carlson.

Board member Laura Wishik chimed in, “I’d love to have a new car, but I can’t afford one.”

Both were speaking about the possible costs of a districtwide facelift for its much-maligned buildings, a redo that architect Mike McGavick suggested could cost around $70 million depending on what the community wanted.

The redo, which could include a mix of remodeled and rebuilt and newly built structures, is the focus of the capital facilities planning process that was re-started in November after the budget crisis derailed it last April.

The aim now is to have a final proposal ready in late July in time for an Aug. 22 filing date to lead to a November bond issue election.

Wishik and Carlson were calling into question not McGavick’s specific number so much as addressing a philosophical issue raised by acting superintendent Terry Lindquist in his introduction to an hour-long session on the matter at the board meeting.

Referring to a real-life current situation at the high school, Lindquist said, “Some teachers teach in the wood-shop, but they can teach better in a learning environment designed for teaching.

“Learning is magic,” Lindquist added. “It happens in a facility designed for teaching with trained teachers who have the facilities they need.”

Could getting such a facility include tearing down the high school’s A building because its classrooms, which face out from the circumference of a circle, don’t seem to lend themselves to collaboration among teachers?

High school principal Susan Hanson thought so. She said that the biggest change in the education process is the shift from regurgitation of facts to the method of critical thinking. “These facilities don’t do that,” she added. “We make it work instead of having it work for us. And aesthetics also make a building work better.”

Some, such as currently returned board member Dan Chasan, have argued in the past that it’s the teaching that matters more than the buildings.

But as McGavick pointed out, the whole discussion was quite preliminary.

McGavick, who is the school district lead from McGranahan Architects, a group that specializes in designing schools, offered the $70 million number as a sample of what it could cost to do some major building overhauls on the VISD campuses, including all three schools.

Speaking just of the high school, McGavick said that in 2005, the cost per square foot was around $200 to put up a new building such as building A, the central structure at the high school.

That’s the year in which the district failed to bring to the voters a facilities plan that would have cost between roughly $50 million and $80 million.

The cost at that time was a contentious issue, with some dubbing the effort a “Taj Mahal,” and others saying that the proposals were an attempt to create a high-quality educational facility.

McGavick said that by 2007, the cost would have been around $250 a square foot. That meant, he said, a general pattern of three to four percent increases.

But, he added, his company projects a greater percentage of increase in the future, from eight to 10 percent, so that the cost in 2011 could be $375 per square foot.

So, asked board member Kathy Jones, “The numbers from last time plus X percent are the possible numbers?”

McGavick said that was true, and he added, “Using the $70 million example, a house worth $400,000 would see a $402 per year increase in property taxes.”

In any case, McGavick was pointing out that the costs of revising the facilities will continue to rise, and that the numbers, which last time surprised many Islanders, will be higher this time.

McGavick did add that it’s the board’s job to determine what the community wants and what’s feasible.

Board chair Bob Hennessey, who ran for election almost two years ago in the hope of influencing the current facilities process, chairs the current facilities planning effort and has made a point of asking the board to consider cost as a major factor.

Trevor Carlson and VHS graduate Ryan Swanson of SNW Schools Group, a company that works on bond issue planning, presented facts and figures about how to pay for any possible plan, and they indicated that there are many issues surrounding the best dates for a school bond election.

Carlson said that a presidential election year is not a good one for bond issue passage and that bond issue elections early in the year are more likely to pass than those in the last months.

But Swanson said that even more important for passage is strong community support for the project.

That’s what Lindquist attempted to stir up in his opening comments.

“It’s not whether, it’s when,” he said. “We have 1,500 kids in the district who need the skills to fix the ferries, to solve Afghanistan, to keep us out of Iraq, and they need not a building but a learning environment.”

Community input sought

Islanders interested in the future of school district facilities are encouraged to participate in a facilities tour of the high school with teachers and staff on hand to answer questions.

It will be from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10. The group will meet at the high school tennis courts.

In addition, a community workshop will be from 6:30 to 3:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 11, at Courthouse Square south of town.

Organizer Deirdre Grace said both efforts are designed to engage the community in a transparent process. The idea, she said, is to make the experience of the buildings real for Islanders so that they can weigh in knowledgeably about the decisions coming up.

Similar events will be held in the next few months, said Grace.

The workshop will be broadcast live and rebroadcast on Voice of Vashon.