By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The principals of Arbor Heights and Roxhill Elementary Schools say the emergence of a proposal to merge the two into a rebuilt AH was as much a “big surprise” to them as it was to their schools’ communities.
That’s part of what they told a gathering of more than 50 people last night at a quickly organized community meeting, less than a week after the merger proposal debuted in the package of possibilities that district staff is circulating (as reported here) as the first round of community meetings begins about what should be in next February’s 4th edition of the every-six-years BEX (“Building Excellence”) levy.
The meeting, led by AH principal Christy Collins, with Roxhill principal Carmela Dellino speaking from the audience, unfolded while the first of those meetings played out across the city at Eckstein Middle School (West Seattle’s school-board director Marty McLaren had sent her regrets to AH and Roxhill, saying she had to be at that meeting instead of theirs). West Seattle’s version of the levy-input meeting is set for 6:30 pm Thursday at Denny International Middle School, and the meeting materials are now on the district website, if you’d like a preview – PowerPoint overview here and “the 3 options” here (which includes the merger proposal).
In addition to answering questions, the two principals sought to explain their side of how this idea might have sprung up, and Collins explained in a show-and-tell why it’s imperative that a new building replacing the 64-year-old AH becomes part of the levy, some way, some how.
The explanations were in the context of a sort of crash course on what the BEX (IV) levy is meant to be, and how best to shape comment about it, particularly without throwing Roxhill under the bus, so to speak – “How do we, as a community with a collective voice, speak out? … In no way, shape, or form, do we want to pit school against school; that would be counterproductive,” said Collins.
(For some, that was likely to have evoked a memory of the bruising school-closure battle in 2008-2009, when an early proposal to close Arbor Heights’ program was fought and then scrapped, but the Cooper Elementary program on Pigeon Point was discontinued instead, and Pathfinder K-8 moved into the new Cooper building after years in the rundown, reopened Genesee Hill. One attendee last night suggested reviving research done back then.)
Collins is in her first year not only as principal at AH but in the Seattle Public Schools district, and noted early on that “both of our schools have lacked some ongoing maintenance … my fear is that if we are not on the BEX levy, we have a long ways to go before the next levy comes up” in or around 2020.
Even the timing suggested for the current proposal of building a new AH to host the merged school communities did not please those on hand: “Our building cannot LAST until 2017,” one teacher declared.
“I don’t know if we can maintain just by putting band-aids on things,” acknowledged Collins, who midway through the meeting narrated a PowerPoint of photos meant to show the fact Arbor Heights is virtually falling apart – peeling paint, insect and rodent traps, and a malfunctioning boiler that had students and staff wearing hats and coats in their own classrooms, their breath visible as they did their classwork. (One photo showed a sign warning against drinking the tap water in a restroom; “Is that the sign above the rat trap?” one attendee yelled out.)
Dellino did not make a presentation about Roxhill, but spoke about its challenges. And Collins noted later that by a district grading scale, the two are in similarly bad condition, saying that AH ranks 3.4 on a district scale of 1 to 5 (5 = worst), while Roxhill scored a 3.2.
As for where the merger idea came from, if not from them, Collins said the original list of BEX IV possibilities that she saw less than two weeks ago had “Arbor Heights being rebuilt in 2016-2017, then there was a proposed completion date for 2018 … at the time, there was nothing for Roxhill,” so she spoke up at a district meeting, advocating for her “neighbor” school too. Then: “We went to the (school) board work session (last Wednesday), heard there were new proposals being presented, opened up the plans and discovered there was the closure of Roxhill and the combination of Roxhill and Arbor Heights. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about how that came about – it was a big surprise to all of us.” She mentioned making a “casual” comment to McLaren some weeks back about how she thought it would be great to work with Dellino someday, but said that wasn’t intended to suggest a merger.
“I want this school [Arbor Heights] to have a new building (and) I want Roxhill to have a new building,” Dellino affirmed – though for her purposes, she said, a Roxhill rebuild isn’t necessarily the only option she had been seeking: She said she had talked with McLaren about the idea of Roxhill moving to the E.C. Hughes building (now being leased by Westside School [WSB sponsor]), because of Roxhill’s location challenges as well as facilities woes: “I think that our school and … our children do not deserve to be on Roxbury. It is not a very wonderful place to try to hold an elementary school. There happens to be a school that is close by … slightly north of Roxhill, that is owned by the Seattle School District. What I had talked to Marty about was the possibility of Roxhill becoming an inhabitant of that building … You could still have a brand-new Arbor Heights; Roxhill could still have a building that’s respectable; and we could continue to preserve the identities of the schools … that was part of our conversation.”
All three of the draft BEX IV options call for “reopening” the EC Hughes building, but, as noted later in the meeting, they don’t specify whether it would be reopened as a new neighborhood school or perhaps as a permanent home for the K-5 STEM school launching this fall in the Boren building on Delridge, which the district has said it intends to keep long-term in the role it’s filled for years, as a temporary/emergency home to other schools (most recently, Chief Sealth International High School for two years ending in summer 2010).
The other West Seattle suggestion that’s mentioned in two of the first-draft BEX IV proposals, moving Schmitz Park Elementary to a new building on the campus of closed Genesee Hill, was mentioned only briefly at last night’s meeting – Collins said it seems clear that SP needs a new facility, as it’s all but impossible to “work with 10 to 12 portables” (she alluded to a past assignment working at a school with eight).
And there were some questions about what’s not in any of the current drafts – most notably, there’s no mention of building a new elementary on the old Denny International Middle School site on 30th, though that has been part of the district’s longterm vision for the site dating back to 2008 Design Team meetings that shaped the site’s current post-demolition state as an extension of Southwest Athletic Complex. (That site would be more central to the current Roxhill attendance area, Dellino acknowledged, than Hughes.)
Most of all, though, questions abounded about the details – what few there are, so far – of the proposed Arbor Heights/Roxhill merger, particularly the capacity suggested for a new school, about 500 students, when the two elementaries’ current populations total more than 700.
Collins pointed out that the district expects to amend its attendance boundaries by the time new schools open, “and it’s my assumption that the boundary change will be how we get to 500 students.” (One person asked if any other elementary school in the district is at that size, and while no one at the meeting pointed this out, we can note here that Lafayette Elementary in the Admiral District has more than 500 students right now.)
That, a Roxhill staffer in attendance suggested later, would likely mean dispersing some of Roxhill’s students to other “less-desirable buildings”; he suggested the district’s idea was ultimately “penny-wise and pound-foolish.” Saying the Roxhill-to-Hughes suggestion seemed “viable” to him – though Dellino had been careful to say that was her own opinion, not something she had vetted with staff or parents – and said to the Arbor Heights attendees, “I ask that you advocate for us.”
One alternative was offered late in the meeting; district watchdog Chris Jackins, who had circulated flyers pre-meeting detailing his opposition to the proposed merger, wondered aloud whether the two school communities would be OK with getting help sooner that did not involve new or relocated buildings – “what could you do for 10 million here and 10 million there? … Seems to me you could fix up a lot of stuff.”
Nobody seemed to second that motion.
Collins’ words from early in the meeting resounded: “I am concerned that … the way that it’s proposed right now, it’s all or nothing … we either accept a combined school or we don’t get anything and we’re looking at another seven years.”
Said one attendee: “The question is, if we can’t both get new schools, could we live with putting our two communities together?” Speaking toward the Roxhill reps, she continued, “I don’t think it has to be you against us.”
Another, however, wasn’t in a conciliatory mood. “A lawsuit would be something (the district) would listen to,” he opined. “Be civil, but I don’t think I’d be too nice about it – be hard-nosed and say, ‘this is what we want’ … be careful about following into their trap of solving THEIR problem.”
And yet it also was stressed repeatedly that these types of proposals usually evolve, so the final levy plan could turn out to be something different from any of the three options circulating now. “Advocate for what you want, not what you don’t want,” attendees were advised. We’ll see what they have to say during Thursday’s meeting at Denny (2601 SW Kenyon), 6:30 pm. An online survey is also part of what the district has posted online – find it on this page. Arbor Heights also is expected to be represented in public comment before tonight’s School Board meeting (6 pm, district HQ in SODO, and usually broadcast live on cable TV).