Costly dilemma: Sunnycrest Elementary construction faces delay, higher price tag

Federal Way Public Schools have hit a major roadblock in the construction of Sunnycrest Elementary School.

Because the project hinged on the passage of the construction bond in 2007, no geological work was done ahead of time. Once the bond passed, a geological study of the Sunnycrest property revealed problems with the plan.

The district has come to realize that two locations under consideration for the new building are unsuitable: The ground is unstable and could shift in an earthquake.

The only location suitable on the property is right where the school currently sits, said Rod Leland, director of facilities.

There are a couple of options available for the construction project, but they come at a cost.

One option would be to build the school in sections, with students housed in half the school as well as in portable classrooms. The north end of the school would then be torn down and built during the school year. At spring break, the construction would switch to the south side, and students would be moved into the north end of the school and the portables.

The plan would extend construction to about 18 months, rather than under one year, as it was planned. The construction projects the school district have already completed, Panther Lake and Valhalla elementary, took about nine months each.

It would also be more costly, adding about $1 million to the price tag.

Another option would be to house the students at a "swing school" — a fairly common practice. At one time, Federal Way used Northlake Elementary School during construction projects. The school, which was closed as a full-time school in 1981, was used periodically as a swing school for Sherwood Forest, Rainier View and Mark Twain elementary schools during their remodeling and construction, the last being in 1994. However, that school isn't an option anymore, as it was sold in the mid-1990s.

The Federal Way School District has already contacted neighboring districts, and both Kent and Highline have a swing school available for next year. Kent's old Panther Lake Elementary and Highline's Old Manhattan school will be empty. These schools and have been used by their respective districts as swing schools in the past.

Buses would transport the entire Sunnycrest student population to the swing school so the school could stay together.

The upside would be fewer distractions for students, and the school could run its programs without moving from classroom to classroom. The construction at Sunnycrest would also take less time, estimated at 11 to 13 months.

The downside to using an out-of-district swing school would be a longer commute, and issues such as security and medical leaves.

The district is already considering what the costs would be for a security officer at the school, which is normally not used at an elementary school. Transportation estimates are between $160,000 to $200,000 for the year. The school board also asked staff to look into what would be done if a student needed to go home sick for the day, and if transportation would be available.

Other options

There are a couple other options the district could look into, including leasing and remodeling a commercial building within the school district. One option that is available, but unlikely, is to split the Sunnycrest population among the other schools in the district.

School board members have already stated their desire to keep the school together.

"If it were my druthers, I would keep the school together and move them all," board member Ed Barney said.

School board president Suzanne Smith also favored moving the school to a swing school, preferably Old Manhattan because of less traffic.

However, the district wants community input before making any decisions. The district plans to hold several meetings, including meetings with interpreters because Sunnycrest has a high population of Spanish-speaking families.

Staff will also find out the costs for leasing and updating the swing school, including adding the district's phones lines.

Another item to be factored in: Sunnycrest's dual immersion program will be starting in the fall. Any decision made would impact students who wished to attend the Spanish/English program.

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