Building schools means building community

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

I know it’s Federal Way Public Schools levy time, but allow me to go off-topic and talk about a school funding campaign already past: The $149 million school construction bond.

This is important now because the design and construction phase is just getting under way. Over the next five years, the school district will build four replacement elementary schools, a new Lakota Middle School and a new kitchen and maintenance services facility. That’s the sound of your community’s infrastructure getting a serious upgrade. This will be great for students and also a significant enhancement of the community.

Before starting on the bond, just because this isn’t about the levy, I’m not advocating complacency there. Bonds buy buildings, levies buy books. The levy will replace the current levy and continue existing state funding for classrooms. There will be no increase to tax rates and our kids deserve no less than a community thumbs up on Feb. 19.

In the past, I’ve written about the district and its responsible management of taxpayers’ money. With the previous construction bond, the district built a new middle school and high school and remodeled Federal Way High, and brought all projects in on time and under budget. The new schools — Todd Beamer High School and Sequoyah Middle School — were built for substantially less than new schools built in other districts. What’s more, both buildings include environmentally sensitive, green building designs that reduce their environmental footprint and result in healthier buildings for students.

One of the tools the district uses to guide building design and construction is a citizens committee known as the Facilities Oversight Committee, of which I am a new member. The committee, which includes parent volunteers, construction professionals and school facilities experts, is charged with helping keep the projects on time and under budget as well as general troubleshooting.

What’s become clear to me through the committee is just how important these new buildings are. First off, the replacement buildings will do today’s students a world of good. The buildings to be replaced are old, inefficient and unsuitable to today’s academic demands. Lakota and the four elementary schools are boxy buildings with boxy fixed classrooms that belong to another era (think early Beatles). These buildings and classrooms dictate a specific pedagogical style and limit classroom flexibility in the Internet Age (let alone the impossibility of wiring them for the Internet Age).

From a maintenance perspective, trading buildings with leaking roofs, aging wiring and other age-related infirmities for modern structures will result in significant maintenance savings that will be available for other priorities.

But there’s more than just the benefit to kids. The school district’s infrastructure is our public infrastructure, and building new school structures is also building community.

Our schools serve a dual purpose as public parks to one degree or another. In my neighborhood, Adelaide Elementary and Lakota Middle School are primary recreation sources for bike riding, dog walking, jogging and sports. All of our schools, to one extent or another, provide athletic field space to organized youth and/or adult sports leagues. The new elementary schools — Valhalla, Panther Lake, Lakeland and Sunnycrest — will significantly upgrade the playground and athletic field resources.

At Lakota, which is adjacent a heavily used city-owned park that is long overdue for renovation, there is a huge potential for the city and the district to collaborate on the site improvement.

I expect that the new buildings will include some of the latest techniques and technology in low-impact development and green building design. Federal Way is one of the first school districts to build under the Green Building law passed by the 2007 Washington State Legislature. This presents an opportunity to pioneer cost-effective methods for environmentally responsible school construction. At Lakota, with the adjacent wetland, there will be opportunities to incorporate environmental learning opportunities that boost science programs there.

And by the way, if you’re not convinced of the value of green building techniques, I’d encourage you to compare the interior of Lakota Middle School with the newer Sequoyah. While Lakota feels like an institution, with its long hallways and artificial light, Sequoyah is open and full of natural light and actually feels like a place of learning.

The spending of the current construction bond represents a rare, massive infusion of capital into the community. Thanks to Superintendent Tom Murphy’s leadership, as well as excellent district staff and volunteers like the Facilities Oversight Committee, I know the money will be spent well and result in excellent and attractive new school buildings and campuses.

Stay tuned on this. There will be public meetings as the design process moves forward. In the meantime, don’t lose sight of the Feb. 19 levy.

Chris Carrel is executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos and a parent of students in the Federal Way Public Schools. The views expressed here represent his personal views and do not represent the views of the Friends of the Hylebos. E-mail: chinook@hylebos.org.

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