What we heard from Seattle Public Schools administration at the end of the school board’s Denny-Sealth shared-campus project work session tonight boiled down to something a lot like what we heard at a meeting about it that we covered here in West Seattle last summer — Yes, we know, we didn’t get a whole lot of public input before roaring forward with this plan, but really, we’re in it too deep now to pull back, though we’ll get you a little more information on what it would cost to change course, if you really, really want it. The majority of the board members, of course, have been elected since the project was approved last year — 4 of the 7 school board members are brand new — and even though board president Cheryl Chow warned them not to get bowled over by the “freshman rush” of project opponents hitting them up, they asked for a chance to reconsider anyway.
The work session centered around a detailed Power Point presentation on where the project is now, how it got there, what it’s supposed to achieve, and what could happen next, with myriad questions and side discussions along the way.
The presentation included a new term, “span school,” meant to describe the concept of a grades 6-12 shared campus. The early screens of the presentation, in fact, included so much talk about the shared campus and its expected benefits, that board member Harium Martin-Morris finally asked, “Are you talking about 2 principals and 2 schools, or a merger?” Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson quickly clarified, “Two principals and two schools,” although she acknowledged that the reputed benefits of a shared campus were reported from research that could have included merged schools as well as schools that just share campuses.
Chief academic officer Carla Santorno said, “Strong academic research backs the (shared campus) model,” and talked about working with a 6-12 campus during her days in the Denver area. The district contends that the potential benefits of a shared 6-12 campus, which would be a first for Seattle Public Schools, include a lower dropout rate and a reduced level of “structural barriers to success related to the effects of school transitions [when changing campuses between middle and high school].”
After all the setup about potential benefits of going forward with a combined Denny-Sealth campus, project manager Don Gilmore went on to recap the timeline between talk of asking voters to approve money for this project in the BEX III levy earlier this year, through various public and district meetings, on to the present.
This was an area that board members were particularly interested in dissecting, as a major bone of contention for more than half a year has been the claim from some that voters weren’t clear that they were voting for this. “What exactly did the voters vote for?” asked Martin-Morris. Gilmore presented language from what he described as a pre-BEX III vote pamphlet that he said was mailed to 45,000 homes, and that language described a combined campus; however, district leaders also acknowledged that what voters actually saw on their ballots at voting time mentioned only renovations to Sealth and replacement of Denny.
Information presented tonight also did not clearly show how many of the meetings that happened before and after the BEX III vote actually offered opportunities for public input. This is a point that the two schools’ principals spoke to at the Westwood meeting last June, and tonight’s mea culpa focused on the fact that the School Board was focused on the closure plan at the time, and did not spend nearly as much time communicating with the public regarding BEX III.
Though public concerns have been expressed repeatedly and passionately in the months since, district staff has continued working on the campus consolidation plan, and said at tonight’s work session that dramatically deviating from it could lead to a 2-year delay. (West Seattle board member Steve Sundquist asked why so long; district administrators say it takes a year to make drawings, and a year to get city permits.) Right now, they are moving toward sending the project out to bid in two months and starting construction this summer; as they have said before, they say now that delays could escalate the construction costs.
But there is added cost with what appears to be a compromise proposal that surfaced tonight — known as Option 2. It would involve adding $5 million-$10 million more in renovations to the current list of what is to be done to Chief Sealth while its students move out for the Denny construction work on their campus. Those additional renovations would include exterior cladding, a new gym floor, new bleachers, auditorium lighting, new doors and windows, exterior wall insulation, and a new roof. That would apparently be on top of the $125 million currently budgeted for the project, and there was no discussion of where that money might come from.
Two Chief Sealth staffers who attended the work session and spoke at the School Board’s regular meeting an hour later, Delfino Munoz and Alison Enochs, suggested that additional spending on Sealth’s renovation doesn’t speak to the heart of their concerns. Enochs, who also spoke as a parent of a Sanislo Elementary student, told the board about a community survey she launched last month on her own time, which she mentioned in a comment on this WSB post; she told the board tonight, “One very large concern (about the project), I did not hear addressed — the fact that as parents (of future Denny/Sealth students), we were not included in input — none of those public meetings were held before (the Denny-Sealth project) decision was made.”
Before the work session, Munoz also circulated a proposal he is hoping to convince the board to consider, showing how Denny could be rebuilt on its current site, with the design the district is using for the shared-campus version, while also incorporating some nearby park features for the community.
But by the time the work session got close to its end, it was a push for board members even to agree to look at the possibility of not combining the campuses; superintendent Goodloe-Johnson appeared to imply she would prefer they only look at the status quo or the “Option 2” extra renovations, and she suggested it would be dangerous for the board to look at rough estimates on what “Option 3” would cost, lest reality be different from the rough estimates. Nonethless, board member Peter Maier pushed for some information to be prepared on Option 3, and so it apparently will be. At that point, district finance/operations leader Don Kennedy said, “Are we still authorized to keep working on the current plan?” and was told yes — so it is clear the district administration will proceed as if the project will go out to bid in two months in its current form, unless the board orders them at some point to do otherwise.
Goodloe-Johnson also recommended various meetings with staff at both Denny and Sealth — no word on what form those might take aside from her description of “internal conversations” — and some sort of public engagement, though she repeated that time is short and “money is a huge impact.”
Time is also short for getting your opinion to board members if you want to say anything about this project, pro or con or otherwise, before it truly reaches a point of no return; contact info for board members is on this page. ADDED THURSDAY AFTERNOON: The unofficial Seattle Public Schools blog has a great, detailed recap here.
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