After a failed bond measure in 2006, Federal Way High School was in a troubling situation.
The school was the face of the district — and its face was outwardly renovated. The school had gotten a mini-facelift just three years before, with a remodel to the front of school, expanding the cafeteria and giving the roadside view a makeover. Some district officials believe this gave voters the illusion of a newly remodeled school despite the aging facility behind the facade.
The academic section of the school is well aged. There are winding hallways that lead past classrooms to about 70 different exits from the school. Those hallways are dark, crowded and carry the scent of a school over 70 years old.
Ceiling tiles are old and stained. The school’s performing arts center has seats that are frayed and ripped, and electrical outlets are hit or miss.
The building was given the lowest grade out of any of the district’s schools for its condition by engineering professionals. However, the school was taken off the bond issue, deemed too expensive, just a few short years after a brand new school, Todd Beamer High School, had opened in the district.
Why did the district build Todd Beamer, and why was Federal Way High School taken off the bond despite a need for remodeling?
FWHS and the bond
In 2004, Federal Way High School was given a 4 out of 10 by an engineering evaluation for its structural and functional condition. Only Star Lake and Valhalla elementary schools scored that low for schools in the district.
Other schools that received remodel funds in the last bond include Lakota Middle School and Panther Lake Elementary, which ranked at 5 out of 10, and Sunnycrest and Lakeland elementary schools, which ranked at 6.
However, just being one of the schools in dire need of remodeling doesn’t guarantee remodeling.
After the bond failed, the district put out a survey to better understand where the community felt the district had gone wrong. The majority of those surveyed felt that either most schools in the district were too old and needed improvement, or were unfamilar with the schools and their condition. Only 23 percent of those surveyed said the schools were fine and didn’t need significant improvement. However, of those same surveyed folks, 60 percent didn’t know why they should support the proposal. Most residents opposed to the bond said in the survey that they voted against it because it would raise taxes. Residents also said the bond was too expensive and trying to do too much; 43 percent of survey respondents said they weren’t sure.
Support for the projects varied. Rebuilding four elementary schools was favored by 58 percent of those surveyed; 51 percent favored building an $8 million environmental center; 50 percent favored rebuilding FWHS; 50 percent favored building a performing arts center (PAC); and 43 percent favored rebuilding Memorial Stadium.
By removing FWHS along with the PAC, Memorial Field and the environmental center, the new revised bond measure didn’t raise the current tax rates — and passed at the polls the next year.
Why build Beamer?
In the year before Todd Beamer High School (TBHS) opened, districtwide there were 4,582 high school students, which at the time comprised grades 10-12.
TBHS was another result of the move to bring ninth-graders into the high schools. When the school district made the move in part to help students become better adjusted and transitioned before taking the WASL. It meant bringing in 1,500 students to schools that were already at the district’s level of capacity. This isn’t to say necessarily that the schools were at either the state’s level of capacity, or what a fire marshal would call capacity. The district determines its own capacity based on how many students it wants in a classroom, and that number can be widely different depending on which capacity you look at. Take, for example, a kindergarten class. If it is a half-day kindergarten class, then the state would count it as two “25 students,” therefore a 50-student capacity. However, it it was a full-day kindergarten class, then according to the state, it is at a 25-student capacity. If it’s the school district looking at capacity, and sets the limit at 20 students in a kindergarten class, then the number is lower. However, if a fire marshal looked at the room, capacity might be as high at 30-40 students.
This past fall, the district had 6,704 students in grades 9-12. Of that number, 1,778 are freshmen. That puts the 10-12 grades in Federal Way at less than 400 more students than before Todd Beamer was built, and before the freshmen were added to high schools.
At the time when TBHS was built, the district said it had no way to predict that the enrollment trend would stop climbing. At that time, the south end was where the district was seeing the most growth.
“The elementaries were huge,” construction information coordinator and former school board member Audrey Germanis said. “That (area) is where the growth was.”
TBHS was built for $46.7 million in 2003. The next year. the district began making plans to rebuild FWHS, at the time estimated at $81 million. The reason for the nearly double cost is in inflation. In the original unapproved bond issue, FWHS was planned on being rebuilt sometime between 2011 and 2013; inflation of construction costs ranged from 4-9 percent a year.
High schools cost so much more than the other schools undergoing a remodel these days, simply because they are so much larger — roughly four times the size of an elementary school. High schools require so much more, including fields, science labs, gyms, locker rooms, music facilities and various other rooms not normally built at elementary schools.
Even if the high school makes it on the bond in 2017, roughly 10 years after the last one passed, there is no guarantee that voters will approve it.
In fact, Chief Financial Officer Sally McLean said the district is prepared for the bond to fail the first time around. That’s because of Federal Way’s history of several failed bonds in the 1970s, and six years of double levy failures, not to mention the last bond measure having to go several rounds before passing. Construction on the project would likely begin at least a year or two later, leaving the building hanging until about 2020.
Schools being talked about for the district’s next round of bond proposals are Decatur High School, Totem Middle School and Mirror Lake, Woodmont, Olympic View, Star Lake, Brigadoon and Lake Grove elementary schools.