Federal Way school district puts toe into voter pool


The Mirror

It’s quite a wish list: a replacement for Memorial Stadium, a community arts center and an environmental interpretive center next to the new middle school.

That isn’t all.

Include replacing several elementary schools, a middle school and Federal Way High School to the list. Total cost: More than $200 million.

Federal Way Public Schools (FWPS) is proposing this list as a possible bond to the public next Wednesday at Saghalie Middle School.

While the district’s board and administrators are selling the single largest bond in the community’s history, those giving the blessing are voters. Before sending the bond to them — possibly in February of 2006 — Superintendent Tom Murphy and the school board want to make sure it’s going to pass.

The Wednesday meeting and a second one later in April are meant to introduce voters to the wish list and for Murphy and his staff to find out what taxpayers are willing to pay for over 10 or 12 years.

District officials — possibly thinking about Federal Way’s dark days at the polls in the late 1970s and early 1980s when bonds and levies sank like lead weights — are also pointing out they haven’t asked a lot of taxpayers over the years compared to some similar-sized neighbors. Between 1990 and 2004 the district issued more than $135 million in bonds, based on data FWPS gleaned from the state superintendent’s office. In the last 20 years, voters have approved more than $185 million in bonds.

By comparison, Edmonds was the next highest with $190 million and the highest — Northshore — had more than $338 million approved over that 14 years. Federal Way was also the second to last in the number of square feet of classroom it paid for with the property tax dollars.

Murphy has already spoken to several groups in the community like the Kiwanis and a senior citizens group. He made his initial pitch to the city in March to a council sub-committee.

The ambitious plan is part of an overall change in how the district is building and maintaining its schools and support buildings. Other districts — locally and nationally — are taking the same path: presenting bonds for large sums to pay for a decade’s worth of building improvements, reconstruction and construction. Many districts are discovering years of neglect and patchwork repairs are costing them more money than replacing schools with newer facilities.

Federal Way’s schools are not going to collapse tomorrow, but school officials say most of the facilities have outlived their usefulness. They are becoming too expensive to maintain, heat and cool. School construction practices have changed dramatically in 40 years — even 20 years experts say — as education needs have altered. Technology — computers, high-speed Internet, phone and cable lines — needs walls that are easy to pass cables and wires through and have several outlets. The internal workings of schools change several times over the life of a building. As educators need spaces to grow or contract, the building has to change. The brick and cement walls of many current schools are like the Maginot Line — immovable and obsolete.

FWPS officials plan to build on the existing sites and say they have enough property to do that while students and staff are in the existing buildings. When the construction is finished, they move into the new building and the old one is torn down.

As for Memorial Stadium, if voters like the district’s idea of building the replacement across from Celebration Park, it could happen while athletes were still using the existing facility. When the new stadium was complete, all the high school teams would play their games there. The district would tear down the old field and seats to make way for the new Federal Way High School.

Construction of the new schools is scheduled in a certain order by the district for a reason. When a school reaches a certain age it becomes eligible for state dollars to help replace or remodel the facilities. FWPS wants construction schedules for each building to occur at the times that funding is available.

Along with the stadium, the district has other non-instructional buildings in the plan. Murphy would like to combine the district’s main kitchen, transportation department and maintenance garage in the same location. The existing kitchen is at Federal Way High School while the transportation building and maintenance are off South 320th Street. The district has purchased some undeveloped land near the new City Hall and the superintendent hopes to put all three departments there. There has been some discussion about the district even contracting its maintenance department’s services to other government agencies to earn some income for FWPS.

Currently, the bus barn has one road in and out. More than 100 buses use it every day leaving for routes. The new location would have multiple entrances giving buses options how to leave and not congesting one road with a bunch of district vehicles.

The work is expected to take a decade to complete. The high school will probably be the last phase of the bond.

If it goes well and the public’s support is intact, the district will come back with a second bond for another $200 million. It would replace Decatur High School, a middle school and several elementary schools. If it passed, the work would be completed sometime in the 2020s.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565,

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