The Federal Way Public Schools superintendent, school board president and others brought a customer service complaint to the council chambers on Tuesday night.
Their dissatisfaction: The city of Federal Way’s permitting process caused a significant delay in the openings of three elementary schools by at least a year, which will cost the district upwards of $10 million, they said.
“The concerns we raised should have been met with genuine interest and problem solving and not the hostility we have seen from the mayor’s office,” said Superintendent Tammy Campbell, expressing her disappointment with how the mayor and city staff handled the process to permit Lake Grove, Mirror Lake and Wildwood elementary schools.
The schools were originally planned to open in fall of 2020, but with the delays, the schools are tentatively set to open sometime in winter 2021.
During the council meeting on Tuesday, Campbell, board President Geoffery McAnalloy and several members of the district’s project team responded to some allegations the city made against the district in the Mirror’s previous article about the cause of the school construction delay. Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell and city staff had pointed to the school district’s alleged shortcomings as the reason for the construction delay.
“I know that problem solving complex issues is never solved through newspapers or even in public comment like I am about to give tonight,” Campbell said. “However, due to the one-sided, incomplete and in a few instances false information provided by city leadership, I felt compelled to come and address you in person.”
Campbell said while the district and the city typically collaborate as partners, this project was different, and it felt like the district were customers at the mercy of the city to accomplish their goals.
“[We] were now experiencing some of the same frustrations that many businesses and other organizations have shared related to the permitting process,” she said.
However, Ferrell stands by his staff and the city’s level of customer service.
“I’m tremendously proud of the hard work and collaboration everyone at the City has invested in helping the school district through the permitting process,” he said in a statement. “City staff involved in the permitting process worked overtime and even came in on weekends in an unprecedented level of customer service.”
But Casey Moore, director of capital programs for FWPS, said it was because of city staffing that the district experienced so many significant delays.
Casey Moore said that project reviews by a specific person and not a department as a whole “[resulted] in delays in reviews due to personal schedules … and inconsistencies between reviewers comments.”
Campbell also claimed several of the comments city officials made in the Mirror’s previous article were misinformation.
She said it was incorrect that the school district never consulted with the city about bond planning.
A Dec. 17, 2019 memo that Public Works Director EJ Walsh and Community Development Director Brian Davis created at the mayor’s request details the permitting process and timeline for the school district’s projects.
According to the 13-page memo: “The District did not request input on the prepared bond measure by City staff to confirm development standards, code requirements, construction costs, permit timelines, or any other assumption made in preparation of the bond measure.”
However, Campbell said that is not true.
“In the summer of 2016 we reached out to the Mayor’s Office to have representation on our Bond Planning Committee of 70 community members and officials,” Campbell said, noting the only city representative who attended these planning meetings was Federal Way Chief of Police Andy Hwang.
Campbell said district and city officials also met on Feb. 27, 2018 to go over the scope of the project and construction timelines.
“The mayor and members of the planning department attended this meeting where we heard failure was not an option.”
According to the memo, the city and school district had a pre-application meeting for the three schools in August 2018. The memo did not mention the February 2018 meeting the district said occurred about six months prior.
The memo continued that the typical timeline from first application to final permit approval was 15 to 18 months, so the district was already quite a bit behind.
However, McAnalloy disagreed with the August 2018 timeline the city used in the memo to outline when the projects began.
“As soon as the bond passed, the school district reached out to the city and had the first meeting in February of 2018 to ensure that things went smoothly,” he said. “We should be using that date as the starting date of the 15-18 months versus the August  date.”
Campbell also refuted the city’s statement that the district’s timeline for construction was “artificial.”
“Schools start and stop in September and June… you don’t have a lot of wiggle room due to the needs related to child care, parent job schedules, and so much is dependent on this,” Campbell said at the council meeting. “There is nothing artificial about this.”
McAnalloy also said during a meeting between the district and city last September a signage request was the newest among requests the city had of the district as this project progressed.
“I was … surprised that we would delay an entire project for signage that already existed and was currently being used,” he said.
McAnalloy was frustrated that instead of the city trying to work with the district to find a solution, there was only blame.
“There continues to be misinformation and finger-pointing occuring instead of recognition that the district is a customer who at this point has paid $1.5 million to the city for a service.”
Several of the project workers also responded to the mayor’s previous comments that the project is “not beginner’s work” and it was essential the district has “the right team in place and people who know what they’re doing.”
The FWPS project team cited years of experience and dozens of past successful school construction projects they were involved with.
Casey Moore, director of capital programs, brings over 30 years experience to FWPS with a background in the design and construction industry and as a licensed architect designing K-12 facilities for over 25 years.
“During this time I have facilitated the successful execution of dozens of projects in numerous jurisdictions for projects totaling well over a billion dollars in current value,” Casey Moore said.
Rebecca Baibak, a principal architect at Integrus Architecture with over 25 years experience designing educational facilities, said her team also has a deep history in this market, as evidenced by their 20 years experience designing over 150 K-12 schools.
She also gave an example of their successful experience working with permitting departments in other cities, such as getting all the needed permits for a new middle school in five months from the city of SeaTac.
“Our experience with the city of Federal Way and Federal Way Public Schools began with this spirit of collaboration …” Baibak said. “As the process progressed, we unexpectedly experienced a lack of cooperation from the city’s team that delayed the review process in a fashion that did not do anything for the betterment of health and safety of the constituents of Federal Way.”
Casey Moore noted the district met all of the target milestones for permitting, however, the district did not receive full project permits for all the projects until Oct. 23, 2019 — over three months past the district’s June 2019 goal. This delay cost the district approximately $25,000 per day, per project, Casey Moore said.
He also outlined how expensive the city of Federal Way’s permitting fees are. He said the district paid over $500,000 in permitting fees for each of the three $31 million and 60,000-square-feet elementary schools. In contrast, the permitting fees for the rebuilding of Thomas Jefferson High School, a $100 million, 240,000-square-foot facility, were under $200,000 in King County, he said.
He addressed previous comments city staff made that the district consistently turned in incomplete documents. Moore said this was a direct result of “the permitting process not allowing the design team to obtain clarification to permit requirements prior to submittal of the documents for review.”
Casey Moore said some comments from the city’s Permitting Department were vague and unclear, inconsistent code interpretations that did not match their experience in other jurisdictions, and project reviews went by person instead of department.
Baibak agreed the city’s permitting process seemed confusing and the city’s lack of communication made their experience much more difficult. She said “weekly meetings were established with the city, forwarding an agenda in advance, yet questions often couldn’t be answered at meetings.”
Baibak said she could provide many more examples of how the city created an undue process, which directly resulted in the district not being able to deliver these projects on time and within the original anticipated budget.
“Challenges aside, we recognize this is the largest, most aggressive bond program the district and the city of Federal Way have undertaken … Moving forward, we will continue to collaborate with the city of Federal Way by applying lessons learned and focusing on the successful delivery of school facilities for our community.”
Steve Moore, a senior project manager at CBRE|Heery brought up the striking difference between how the city of Seattle handles permitting when it comes to school facilities and how the city of Federal Way has handled this project. In Seattle, all school projects are assigned a special category and are expedited through the review process, Steve Moore said. The process is all online as well, making submissions and reviews easier.
Seattle typically has two to three review cycles; Federal Way has greater than four, he added.
And while the process for issuing a permit in Federal Way is typically 15 to 18 months, according to the city’s memo, Steve Moore said the most time it takes to issue a permit in Seattle is 14 months depending on the complexity of the project.
“Seattle is a bigger city with more projects and yet they still manage permits in a shorter amount of time,” he said.
However, Hemstreet denied the city has any issues with their permitting process.
“We believe we have a great permitting process,” he stated in an email. “While the typical turnaround time by the City for submitted applications and revisions is 30 to 45 days, the average turnaround time by the City for the District’s projects was six calendar days. On several occasions we even took extra steps to assist the District in receiving its permits.”
According to a table in the memo, the city took even less time to approve the applications for the district than neighboring cities.
But Kassie Swenson, chief of communication and strategy for FWPS, said the table does not appear to be comprehensive to the surrounding communities, however, and appears to “cherry pick” certain schools.
Following public comment on Tuesday, the mayor addressed the school officials, letting them know he took their concerns to heart and assured them he would have city staff look into each of them.
However, Hemstreet stated in an email to the Mirror that the city has no plans to meet with the district over these concerns as “the building permits for all three elementary schools in city limits have already been issued.”
He added the city stands by their report on all matters that district officials raised during the meeting.
The mayor agreed.
“I stand by the findings of the report written by our Public Works and Community Development directors,” Ferrell said in a statement. “We will continue to work with Federal Way Public Schools on behalf of all the students, parents and people of this community to get these schools built in compliance with the law and all applicable safety standards.”