Slumping economy pays off for Federal Way schools

A lackluster economy is a boon for Panther Lake Elementary — a boon worth more than $1 million.

Less work for construction firms means more competitive bidding, which means lower costs for the school district.

Panther Lake is one of five schools being rebuilt after voters approved a $149 million construction bond. Nine contractors bid on the Panther Lake construction project, with the low bid coming in at $9.6 million, well under the budget of about $11 million.

This means the district could approve all of the “alternates” on the school — improvements that depended on the money available. Some of the alternates include extra landscaping near the entrance, skylights, a covered play shed, a new play structure, a cooling system in the office area and thicker pavement. Even with adding all the alternates, the board was still able to approve the bid contract and still be under budget. The project now comes in at just under $10.8 million.

The school board approved the bid submitted by Babbit Neuman in a work study meeting Wednesday.

The construction at Panther Lake is part of the district’s plan to update 23 of its 37 schools. Panther Lake is one of the five schools that the district will completely rebuild, replacing the decades-old school that had a leaky roof, a small kitchen and multiple entrances that caused security concerns as well as long hallways that left teachers off to themselves.

Cashing in on economy

Part of the reason for the lower bid rates is that with the sagging economy, construction companies have less business.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the economic growth went drastically negative in the third quarter of this year.

Housing production was down over 19 percent this quarter and 63 percent from its peak. Workforce Explorer reports that in January 2008 alone, construction employment dropped 1,900 jobs in Washington state, although part of those numbers could be a result of the season, not just the downturn.

Rudy Baca, the principal at Panther Lake, attended the board meeting to discuss the process he and district administration went through with the architect.

“My vision is right in back of us,” he said, gesturing toward the building plans.

Baca spoke of the district and the architect being very willing to change their design based on staff feedback.

Some things that changed included the gym layout and the library; Panther Lake staff said they were concerned it didn’t look like a traditional elementary school library. The plans were changed to include a traditional library after administration attended meetings with staff and parents.

“The staff is excited, the parents are excited,” Baca said. “(The administration) was there every step of the way.”

“My staff and the community are going to get what they want and what they deserve,” Baca said.

Superintendent Tom Murphy said that although the design for the library wasn’t what it would have done, he was pleased with the overall design and that the staff was so excited for their new school.

Rod Leland, director of facility services, said he thought the good bid market would likely continue for Valhalla Elementary and other Federal Way schools up for construction, and that those schools would likely be able to include their alternates.

“This is a great example of a principal who advocated,” said Leland, referring to the Panther Lake principal.

Contact Kyra Low:

Bond facts

The $149 million bond will rebuild five aging schools: Lakota Middle School and Lakeland, Panther Lake, Sunnycrest and Valhalla elementary schools.

The district’s transportation center, central kitchen and maintenance facilities will be rebuilt and relocated to an area near Celebration Park.

The bond will trigger $20 million in matching funds from the state to provide improvements to 23 Federal Way schools built before 1990, with the exception of Federal Way High School. Renovations will include repairing items such as heating, roofs and plumbing.

The district plans to complete the projects by 2013.

For more information about the bond, visit or e-mail

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