Bainbridge School District says Wilkes Elementary needs help

Wilkes principal Sheryl Belt in the art room, which lost thousands of dollars in supplies after a plumbing failure in the ceiling. - Brad Camp/ Staff Photo
Wilkes principal Sheryl Belt in the art room, which lost thousands of dollars in supplies after a plumbing failure in the ceiling.
— image credit: Brad Camp/ Staff Photo

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Principal Sheryl Belt has a tale of misadventure to tell for seemingly every room in Wilkes Elementary School.

As she poked through her campus last week, she pointed out staff bathrooms that flood during heavy rains and a cramped hallway that doubles as a lunchline.

In the back of an arts classroom, Belt paused to relate how a faulty valve had recently sent boiler water cascading down from the ceiling, destroying more than $3,000 worth of paper and supplies.

“That’s sort of typical here,” she said. “You clean it up, you get it fixed and you move on.”

Bainbridge School District administrators say those constant nuisances are symptoms of deeper problems at the 55-year-old elementary school. Problems so malignant that the district is proposing a bond issuance to fund a new school, rather than modernizing its existing structures. The $42 million bond would include $10 million for district-wide facility improvements, including roofing, paving and energy conservation projects.

The proposal will appear on the ballot for a special May 19 election. Ballots will be mailed April 29.

Little criticism of the proposal has been voiced publicly thus far, but islander Chris Van Dyk said he is forming a group to actively oppose the measure, which he characterizes as an “unnecessary school expense.”

In 2005 Wilkes, Blakely Elementary, Commodore Learning Center and portions of Bainbridge High School, were identified as needing renovation in a Facilities Master Plan developed by the school district.

A $45 million bond that passed in 2006 paid for the construction of a new 200 Building for BHS, as well as a new maintenance facility, stadium improvements and other small capital projects.

As it planned its next series of capital projects the school district board considered a bond proposal to reconstruct both Wilkes and Blakely, but opted to move forward with just one school, in part to keep the district’s tax rate flat.

A bond proposal to rebuild Blakely Elementary could come in 2013.

Wilkes Elementary was constructed in several installments, the first in 1954, and was renovated in the early 1990s. Four portable buildings have been added for classroom, program and storage space.

A 2003 survey of the buildings by BLRB Architects – referenced in the Facilities Master Plan – found deficiencies at Wilkes that included inadequate transportation and stormwater amenities outside, as well as heating, plumbing and electrical systems within the building. The assessment listed all the school’s portable buildings in “poor” condition.

Belt agrees that Wilkes’ ailments begin outside in the school’s loading and unloading zone.

She said the transportation area is too cramped to accommodate the growing number of buses and parent vehicles, creating a confusion of vehicles and children each morning and afternoon.

“They don’t build (parking areas) like that anymore. It’s too dangerous,” Belt said. “It’s kind of an accident waiting to happen all the time.”

Inside, the most noticeable problems are created by leaky roofs and pipes.

On average, roofs at Wilkes are more than 20 years old. The school has central boilers which pipe heat throughout the buildings. The pipes are beginning to fail, which means leaks can spring up at anytime, drenching ceiling tiles with chemically treated water. Belt said the boilers themselves have also kept district maintenance personnel scrambling.

Rooting out those internal problems would involve tearing out foundation, walls and ceilings to replace asbestos coated pipes and wiring, said Tamela VanWinkle, the district’s director of Facilities and Capital Projects. Plus a major renovation would require that Wilkes be brought up to meet modern code requirements, VanWinkle said. Wilkes lags behind code in a number of areas, including its lack of a sprinkler system for fire prevention. VanWinkle said the district has estimated that refitting the buildings would run about 85 percent the cost of a full repalcement.

Wilkes buildings also have nagging space problems that couldn’t be fixed by renovation.

It’s classrooms – built to house rows of desks – aren’t designed to accommodate modern activity and group-based curriculum, so classes often spill out into hallways. At lunch, students line up in a hall to be served lunches, which they take back to their desks to eat.

VanWinkle said the trend in new elementary schools is to conglomerate rooms into a single building, which can be secured more easily during emergencies and are more energy efficient.

The school district has not begun designing the new Wilkes (funding for the designs would be included in the bond package) but VanWinkle said it will likely be reconstructed as a single, two-story building. The design for Wilkes would be used as a prototype for the eventual reconstruction of Blakely and Ordway.

The district’s plan is to erect the new Wilkes building on a vacant rise west of the existing buildings. Classes could continue in the old Wilkes during construction. When the new Wilkes isfinished the old Wilkes will be demolished to make way for improved parking and bus lanes.

But first voters must be convinced of the need for a new Wilkes.

And despite its internal problems, Wilkes’ brick-veneered buildings still look stout and tidy from the outside, which makes communicating the school’s unseen needs difficult, VanWinkle said.

“The street presence is good,” she said. “It’s really when you do a tour that you start to see the problems pile up. We have a whole community that drives past and says ‘It looks good to me.’”

Island Certified Public Accountant and school district observer Daniel Smith said he would have preferred to see the Wilkes bond separated from the $10 million for miscellaneous improvements, with the smaller bond coming forward in 2009 followed by the Wilkes bond in 2010.

“In today’s economic climate, it’s better to go for a single than swing for the fence hoping for a home run,” Smith said.

VanWinkle said the district had opted for a packaged bond proposal because it felt the needs were equally urgent.

Van Dyk, fresh from leading a campaign against artificial turf field installments at BHS and Battle Point Park, said he plans to actively organize against the Wilkes bond. The former district capital facilities committee member said he believes Wilkes could be repaired, rather than rebuilt, and that the district should not be considering a levy during dire economic times.

“The Bainbridge School District has misplaced its priorities,” Van Dyk said.

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