As Federal Way Public Schools plans to partially combine two schools for the first time, residents and parents have raised concerns about merging some of the common areas for kindergartners through eighth-grade students at Totem Middle School and Star Lake Elementary, among other impacts.
The district is entering the design and planning phases of construction for the schools, treating the project as one, since the two schools are located on the same piece of property, according to an Oct. 24, 2018 FWPS press release. This will allow the district to “utilize taxpayer dollars more efficiently and explore more options for situating the schools on the site,” the release continues, noting that project planning will continue through 2019 with construction set to begin in early 2020.
Approved by voters in November 2017, a school construction bond of $450 million was allocated to the district to rebuild eight schools, including Thomas Jefferson High School, Totem and Illahee middle schools, and Olympic View, Lake Grove, Mirror Lake, Star Lake and Wildwood elementary schools, as well as improvements for Memorial Stadium. The district is amid the design phases for six of those schools, including Totem and Star Lake. The district selected BN Builders, Inc. in October 2018 as the general contractor/construction management firm for this construction project.
Since May 2018, the district has held seven meetings to update the community and address concerns about the construction project — which will be unlike any other site within the district, according to district officials.
The district and architects have been met with mixed emotions throughout the process.
At the latest meeting on Jan. 16, architects introduced a new building concept, which derives from the feedback community members, neighbors, parents, staff and students provided. The new concept shows two separate schools integrated with shared spaces on the same site.
The existing buildings include Totem at 95,000 square feet, Star Lake at 48,000 square feet and 9,500 square feet of portables that will all be rebuilt into 156,000 square feet total with no portables.
From a front view, the school faces 40th Avenue South and runs parallel to South 270th Street. Entering through secure vestibule doors, individuals will reach separate administration areas for each school.
Combined areas include the family resource center, learning resource centers (or libraries), the kitchens and possibly the stage performance auditoriums located closer to the front of the building.
Music rooms, gymnasiums, art studios and flexible learning areas are proposed to be distinct from one another. The proposal also calls for completely separate core classroom wings: the Star Lake side as two stories with 27 classrooms, and Totem Middle School as three stories with each story dedicated to a grade level (sixth, seventh and eighth) for a total of 31 classrooms.
Safety, traffic and other concerns
Although combining some shared areas within the schools was initially met with backlash, several community members seemed to be warming up to the idea at the latest meeting as more answers and solutions are found.
Christopher Gonzalez, a 12-year resident of the neighborhood, has attended nearly all the meetings because his two kids do, or will in the near future, attend the schools. He said he mostly likes the plan and is a “huge fan of the community areas,” such as the Family Connections Center and libraries because “it brings it all into a central hub.”
As an active parent and PTA volunteer, Karin Schuyleman has seen the two schools evolve throughout her 20-plus years in the neighborhood. Schuyleman, a member of the Design Review Committee that gave feedback about the project and voted on some of its elements, said it’s up to the community to “create the culture” when it comes to making the project’s logistics function cohesively.
With the new schools, Schuyleman said she hopes the district and each schools’ administration utilize the potential opportunities and continue to develop special programs with this unique school site — while keeping all kids safe.
Safety was at the forefront of many minds when the combined school idea was initially introduced.
Gonzalez, along with many other parents, voiced concern and insight on the high-traffic areas of bus and parent drop-off areas in concern for students’ safety around the roads at the Jan. 16 meeting.
As the project is still in early stages, architects said there is still plenty of time to work on implementing safe zones for arrival and departure from the school site.
But others, including longtime community neighbor and a vocal regular at meetings, Karey K. Wise, are worried about the safety from within.
“I believe Totem has a high incidence of behavioral misconduct, and the interaction/proximity of the two large, dissimilar student bodies is a recipe for eventual problems,” Wise said in an email to the Mirror.
But FWPS Superintendent Dr. Tammy Campbell said having shared spaces on campus would be a positive experience for students of both schools.
“These are actually two separate schools,” Campbell said. “They will not be able to interact with each other unless we intentionally do it … We believe that the students are going to benefit.”
The current version of the design for the new schools has the two front doors approximately 375 feet apart by walking distance, according to Whitney Chiang, director of multimedia communications for the district.
Privacy was another concern with the new design proposal.
Fern Barrick, who attended the Jan. 16 meeting, said she dislikes the three story idea because it blocks the view and may also allow students to peer into the windows or backyards of surrounding neighbors, she said.
“We’ll never see another sunset again,” Barrick said.
The staff and students will come and go from the new facility, “but we live here,” Barrick said. “We have to deal with it twenty-four seven.”
Attendees of the January meeting were still full of other questions: Where will deliveries arrive? How many trees will be lost or saved? What will the bus bay do to sidestreet traffic? How can the district improve safety for young students crossing busy roads near the school?
As construction is projected to begin in 2020, many of the answers are to be determined.
Overcrowding, combining some areas
The need for this project stemmed from overcrowding in the current schools.
“The whole point is to alleviate the 1,000-student crowding at elementary [level]. That was the whole purpose,” Campbell said.
Voters opted for bigger elementary schools to accommodate for portables on site of various elementary schools across the district and in anticipation of growth in the coming years — both of which were big selling points of the bond, Campbell said.
“We don’t want to build a school that in the following year after you build it, you’ve got portables in the back of the school,” she said.
Today, the population of both schools is 1,140; Totem houses 710 students and Star Lake accommodates 430 in the current facilities.
The proposed site will house a total of 1,325 students; 800 from Totem and 525 from Star Lake. Most current elementary schools are constructed to hold 600 elementary students, but Campbell said concessions have been, and most likely will continue to be made.
“Star Lake now is going to be slightly smaller than the other elementary schools because the parents [and community members] were so concerned about the neighborhood, so we listened to that,” she said. “We lowered, which makes it a little bit smaller of a footprint.”
In the long-term, the district’s obligation is to build schools that accommodate the growing community size for decades to come, Campbell said.
Since both schools currently sit approximately 500 feet apart, co-locating the schools makes sense given the limited space to build the schools without causing major disruption or relocation to the scholars, Campbell said.
“What drove that conversation was the site itself,” Campbell said. “Truth be told, the sites each told a story to the architects, to the project managers, to the folks who are going out doing site work. The sites tell a story and based on that story that they tell, that influences design.”
However, Michael Scuderi, a parent living near the school sites, believes increasing construction costs drove the district’s decision to co-locate the two schools.
“The current plan is a poor compromise,” Scuderi wrote in an early February email to the Mirror after attending multiple meetings and voicing his dissatisfaction at school board meetings. “I stand by that position.”
His only hope, he said, is that once the construction cost estimates come in, there won’t be an additional push for the district to combine more of the facility’s currently separate areas, he said.
“The proposed combined school is the result of the district’s gross mis-estimation of construction escalation costs and their desperate attempt to cut costs,” Scuderi said. “It is not for superior educational opportunities. If that was the case, why wouldn’t they have originally proposed this plan?”
But Campbell said the only factor that rising construction costs impact is the project’s expected finishing dates.
As the district fights rising escalation costs on all of its projects, “We went back through and we moved several projects up because by moving them up, we’re saving money,” Campbell said.
The district initially predicted construction escalation costs for the project costs as $68 million. However, given regional and global factors, the escalation in this region is now predicted to be higher than anticipated, according to a capital projects update from the district in May 2018.
The regional escalation now tops $111 million for the entire bond, leaving the district with $43 million in additional, unexpected escalation costs. To mitigate this, the Totem Middle School project was moved up four years.
The district used a number of 4.2 percent escalation to complete their estimate calculations, therefore the district concluded it was a safe number to use to estimate cost calculations. However, in 2018 that number jumped to 10 percent, said Kassie Swenson, the district’s chief of communications.
“Everyone’s vying for those same labor and material resources that’s causing that escalation to go up in a way [similar to] some of the things happening in the region,” Swenson said.
The only way to anticipate unheard of escalation would’ve been through a crystal ball, Campbell said. As the escalation bubble grows, it’s bound to burst at some point, but FWPS capital projects director Casey Moore said: “The problem is when you get caught in the bubble, do you delay everything … or do you figure out how to deal with it now and push ahead?”
“Our objective is to invest every dollar we can into the new facilities, and be as responsible [as we can],” he said, followed up with Campbell’s question: Do you want to spend money on a “portable city,” or do we want to spend every dollar possible on the buildings?
Transparency and outreach
Transparency has been a battle, parent Scuderi wrote, a sentiment echoed by many meeting attendees.
“That is not the way the process is supposed to be,” Scuderi said.
Those working on the construction project designs listened to the concerns, said community member Fern Barrick, but it took a lot of repeating from residents.
Campbell said this district has a “robust plan” for communicating with neighbors through a transparent process.
“We’ve been very aggressive in making sure folks know where the meetings are, and then creating a space for input.”
When the district began to receive questions and concerns from community members living near the school site, the district scheduled more meetings and innovated more ways to hear public comment, she said. Most meetings now include a recap of the prior meeting, a presentation of the next step in the design process, then an engagement exercise to gather community insight.
“Through that process, I feel really solid about where we’ve landed in our decision making for the project,” Campbell noted.
Architects Aaron Winston and Kris Stamo, of McGranahan Architects firm that is designing the new schools, said the district is committed to “being the best neighbor we can be.”
The project is nearing its first schematic design milestone of having aerial and ground views, budget estimations and more details surrounding the property, but also needs to complete the SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) review process, which will tell more about the project’s environmental impacts. The SEPA public comment period is open until March 11.
The next bond update meeting will be held from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20 at Totem Middle School. Attendees have the opportunity to review the next round of design concepts and provide their opinion on the project. Totem Middle School is located at 26630 40th Ave. S. in Kent.