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Sedro-Woolley School District takes another shot at rebuilding school

October 8, 2018
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A speaker talks to students Sept. 28 at Evergreen Elementary School. Classrooms in the school are separated by thin, temporary walls and doorways.

SEDRO-WOOLLEY — Many of the “walls” that make up the classrooms and hallways at Evergreen Elementary School are actually bookshelves — some of which don’t extend all the way up to the ceiling.

Classroom doors are thin, hollow-core doors — the type generally used as interior doors in homes — and none of them have locks, posing a security concern.

There are 32 entrances into the building, which is another security concern.

Those are just some of the reasons the Sedro-Woolley School District will on Nov. 6 again ask voters to approve a bond issuance proposal that would allow the district to build a new Evergreen Elementary School.

“Our students deserve to learn in a facility that is more conducive to teaching and learning,” Superintendent Phil Brockman said.

If approved, the $44.5 million bond proposal would add 74 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value to the taxes of property owners in the district for up to 20 years.

It is the district’s second attempt to get voters to approve building the new school. In February, 52 percent of voters rejected a $79.5 million proposal that would have addressed Evergreen Elementary, as well as repairs at each of the district’s other nine schools.

Bonds need 60 percent of the vote to pass.

In deciding how to proceed with another bond proposal, the school district opted to include only Evergreen Elementary, which houses about 600 students in kindergarten through the sixth grade.

“There’s just no way around it. We need a new school,” said Tim Howland, a former school board member who co-chaired the 17-person facilities committee that created the original bond proposal. “It is a problem and it’s not going to go away and it just gets more expensive every year we put it off.”

In his 24 years in the district, Evergreen Elementary Principal Brian Isakson said the school has repeatedly come up on the district’s to-do list but has always been bumped in favor of other projects, such as Cascade Middle School.

Now, the district says the need is too great not to act.

“What I always tell people is we have the best people and the worst building,” Isakson said of the school’s staff. “But I think our kids deserve better than to just have the best people.”

A design problem

Evergreen Elementary was built in the 1970s using an “open-concept” design, meaning there were few walls. Since then, the district has had to add temporary walls to construct classrooms and hallways.

“It opened in 1972 and it was deemed to be a problem in 1973,” Howland said. “It’s been a headache ever since the darn thing was built and many efforts have been made to make it work.”

The temporary walls and doors have created a maze-like cluster of classrooms, where one trip to the restroom can have a student walking through up to four classrooms.

The pipes are so corroded, students are advised to bring water from home or use the bottled water dispensers supplied by the district.

“I think we can have a better environment,” Isakson said.

As the district has moved forward with becoming a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Network district, Evergreen Elementary has been designated the district’s STEM elementary school, but the building’s layout has restricted the students’ potential, Isakson said.

A new building with larger work spaces would allow students to work on long-term projects.

“We don’t really have space for that unless we stop lunch,” Isakson said of using the cafeteria, the school’s largest single space.

The school has many of the district’s special needs students, Isakson said, and the distractions caused by the building’s layout are especially hard on them.

“These are fragile learners, but they don’t have rooms that are designed for their learning,” he said.

Renovating the building, Howland said, would still cost millions of dollars and reduce classroom space because of how the temporary interior walls have been set up.

“We can spend $30 million-plus fixing up the building as it is, but we will reduce its capacity to hold students,” he said. “So even if we do that, we have to go ahead and build an additional wing.”

And because the interior walls provide no structural support, the building is not eligible for seismic upgrades, said Brett Greenwood, the district’s executive director of Business and Operations.

“We can’t do anything other than add portables,” Brockman said.

Portable buildings, Isakson said, aren’t the ideal classroom environment, and every added portable costs money and takes up playground space.

“It’d cost more money, and it’s not being friendly to the community,” Brockman said.

Evergreen Elementary is one of the last remaining schools in the state to have been built using an open concept, Brockman said.

“It was flawed, that’s why people moved away from it,” he said.

Thirteen of the building’s classrooms have no natural light and because the building did not originally have interior walls, the school’s ventilation system doesn’t work efficiently, Howland said.

In addition, the city of Sedro-Woolley recently included in its six-year transportation plan road improvements that would force the the school district to move its Good Beginnings preschool program, Brockman said.

The logical place to move those preschool students, he said, would be a new Evergreen Elementary where they could then easily transition to kindergarten.

“This is a great opportunity to design a school that has a great preschool place,” Brockman said.

The cost

If the bond proposal is approved, the district’s plan is to replace Evergreen Elementary with an 87,000-square-foot, three-story school with the capacity for about 650 students. It would be located between Cascade Middle School and the current Evergreen Elementary.

About a year ago, the cost of replacing Evergreen Elementary was estimated at $45 million. Now, that estimate has risen to $48.8 million, or about $561 per square foot, Greenwood said.

In comparison, the new 80,000-square-foot, two-story Harriet Rowley Elementary School in Mount Vernon cost about $42 million, or about $525 per square foot, Mount Vernon School District Superintendent Carl Bruner said.

Madison Elementary School in Mount Vernon, which has been demolished and is set to be rebuilt — similar to what is planned for Evergreen — is estimated to cost about $42 million or about $609 per square foot for its 69,000 square feet, Bruner said.

Both of those projects were funded by a 2016 voter-approved $106.4 million bond issuance proposal.

“Definitely we are seeing construction escalation happen on our construction projects as we are competing with other major construction projects for materials and subcontractors all up and down I-5,” said Suzanne Gilbert, the Mount Vernon School District’s capital projects manager.

The Sedro-Woolley School District is set to receive about $8 million from the state to help build a new Evergreen Elementary.

The district hopes to have about $2 million left over from the bond after the new Evergreen Elementary is built. That money has been earmarked for property acquisition, Greenwood said.

A $17 million bond approved by voters in 2010 for construction of a new Cascade Middle School currently costs property owners 49 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value, according to the district.

That bond is expected to be paid off by 2031.

Rebuilding Evergreen Elementary won’t fix all of the district’s problems with its facilities, Howland said, but it’s a start — one that is important not only to the students but the community.

“These (kids) are going to be running the world in the future and they’re going to be taking care of us,” he said. “We’ve only got 12 years to work with these kids and we want to make the most of that. If we can build a building that helps the learning process, then that’s a good thing to do. That’s not an arguable point.”

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