Schools have litany of needs

Several buildings are said to be at the end of their ‘serviceable lives.’

When is a school building just too old?

Master planning for Bainbridge Island School District campuses turns largely on that question.

Faced with a litany of physical woes at campus buildings – some of them more than 30 years old – school officials must confront the question of when those facilities are beyond their “serviceable life.”

“When you analyze a building, you look at the structure from the inside out,” said Tamela VanWinkle, school district project manager. “You’re looking at mechanical stuff and the structure itself, based on current codes. You’re looking at fire safety, energy efficiency, stormwater, all of those.

“There comes a point where you ask, how much would it cost to repair, replace or upgrade all of those components, versus rebuilding?”

In a marathon workshop Thursday, school board members and district officials were presented with a detailed and frank assessment of the condition of local schools.

Findings were presented by consultants from Seattle’s Mahlum Architects, commissioned to undertake the study as part of a master-planning effort with a 10-year horizon. The study is being done to buttress a planned, multi-million-dollar bond levy for school improvements.

Recent buildings like Sakai and Woodward and the newer high school wings fared relatively well in the assessment, with few issues beyond poor communication systems and an absence of natural light in classrooms.

But the older buildings – including Blakely Elementary School, built in 1965, and Wilkes (1954 and 1978) – fared poorly.

The study found a litany of shortcomings, including the absence of fire sprinklers; poor insulation, heating and pipes; food service that takes place in hallways rather than lunchrooms; and a reliance on aging portable classrooms.

The configuration of classrooms themselves was said to be inappropriate for current instruction, while the absence of fencing around several buildings raised security concerns.

VanWinkle said she was not surprised by the findings.

“Having worked with facilities for a number of years, I knew immediately that when you compare our facilities to other school districts, they’re disappointing,” she said.

Whether older buildings should be remodeled or replaced has yet to be decided. But the study gave some hint as to the makeup of the elementary school of the future.

The buildings were evaluated against a standard that includes “learning clusters,” groups of three or four classrooms organized around a shared space said to be optimal for instruction.

By contrast, the current buildings generally follow a more traditional model of long hallways flanked by classrooms, with no common areas beyond the lunchroom, gymnasium or library.

School board members agreed with the need for shared areas to enhance the learning and social environments, citing the Woodward commons.

“You put a foosball table and a couple of kids in there, and all of a sudden you have a community,” school boad member Bruce Weiland said. “A successful school isn’t just about teaching stations. It’s about having spaces where kids build relationships between themselves and with adults.”

Architects and staff now will begin prioritizing needs, with a cost analysis to guide the board as it mulls a construction bond.

The board had tentatively looked at November as the bond levy date, but VanWinkle suggested that it might be prudent to push the vote back until February 2006.

That would give the district time to make the needs of school buildings clear to island voters, who recently spurned a levy for technology upgrades.

“Until you have a clear understanding of where the deficiencies are, you can’t understand why we need to make an investment of our facilities,” VanWinkle said.

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