Part 1: The $81.2 Million School Bond • February 2015

Fact:  New schools are expensive.

R e a l l y  expensive.

Most voters on Bainbridge Island generally don’t pay attention to such matters as what a bond issue will actually extract from their wallets and investment accounts. It’s just more money “for the kids” from a generally wealthy island population. Bainbridge Island schools are consistently rated excellent, and whatever is said or printed by the bond promotion and school supporter groups is accepted by most at face value.

The Bainbridge Island School District (BISD)  bond mailer is captioned:   Facts about the Capital Bond.

Simple definition of facta true piece of information.

Anyone ever question whether the BISD and the school bond supporters are providing facts, or are they providing financial distortions?

By law, the school district can provide factual information to the community, but they cannot advocate on behalf of the issue. But “facts” can be distorted, and so, let’s see how the district does with the $81.2 million bond issue now before the public.

For a basis, let’s start at a point the BISD generally ignores discussing at their public presentations and bond facts mailer.

The most recent addition to the school inventory asset list is Wilkes Elementary. It’s worth your time wandering through at an open house.

For a K-4 school, it has long and spacious corridors, multiple specialization rooms, loaded with the latest technology, lots of natural light, ample restrooms. It’s geothermal heating and pervious surfaces are in keeping with current environmentalism goals. It’s a very high end K-4 school campus.

Not only impressive, it has received school design awards, raves from the parents of the students, and is frequently toured as an example what can be done by other school districts planning new schools.

But let’s focus on money since that’s the primary focus of this blog.

The 2011 Wilkes bond was for $32.5 million for the school replacement, and $9.5 million for other general district capital improvements. Not much was said about what those funds would be used for, but a stadium renovationand new track were two of the funded improvements. Total bond approved by voters was $42 million.

The money focus point:   BISD asked for $32.5 million for Wilkes Elementary, and they are now asking voters for  $39 million to replace Blakely Elementary.

So what did Wilkes Elementary actually costs now that the bills have been paid?

It was one of Washington State’s most expensive elementary school replacements at the time … but the actual costs came in below the $32.5 million school district bond request.

It’s a pubic record and on the school district’s website:

Wilkes Elementary cost $28.92 million.

Wilkes Elementary Capital Project Budget Update as of 31 October 2015:


Wilkes Capital Budget Oct 2015


This raises two obvious questions.

First, what happened to the $3.58 million that wasn’t used for Wilkes?

According to the School District, the bond was written such that the bond money could be used for purposes other than Wilkes Elementary. Informally, I was told most of the $3.58 million was put into paying the School District’s Capital Projects staff present and for future work. BISD can clarify that if that is not factual.

Second, how does the school district reconcile asking for $10 million (a 34.8% increase) more to replace Blakely Elementary than they actually spent on a high-end Wilkes replacement 5 years ago?

The Seattle price inflation increase between the two bond dates (May 2009 and Feb 2016 is expected to be 10.5%-10.6% (actual data will be available in March, 2016). Material costs rose rapidly after the recession, but they have rapidly fallen in 2015 to a five year increase of just over 1%. There are exceptions: concrete, for example. Because of booming construction  in the Puget Sound area, concrete costs are substantially higher. But on a whole, cost of construction has increased less than 15% in the past five years.

The first big unanswered question by the BISD is why Blakely Elementary replacement is $10 million more than actual cost of Wilkes Elementary, especially given the school district statement that “the design for Wilkes would be used as a prototype for eventual reconstruction of Blakely and Ordway.”

You might think the School District could save some architect and consultant monies from just having paid for a prototype school, but that just appears to be wishful thinking.

The BISD hires a Seattle consultant, Robinson Co., to do their school cost estimates. Robinson Co. has a fine reputation, but as the Seattle Times pointed out in 2013 when writing about the skyrocketing costs of Seattle area schools, Robinson Co., the firm that  did most of the high cost projections, says it’s just the way things currently are. No specifics … it’s just the way Robinson Co. observes local building conditions.  But, the Seattle Times reporter pointed out that the square footage per student on the new elementary schools was 140+ sq. ft. per school student, and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) recommends new construction goal of 125 sq. ft. per elementary level student. Robinson, Co. generally supports the larger schools approach. Probably logical to avoid portables as the years pass.

Most of the Seattle area schools are being built for a fast growing urban population.  We’ll talk about that and how the BISD is cleverly deceiving the Bainbridge Island public with the “facts” in their bond mailer.

Here are the elementary school cost comparisons in the bond mailer:

School Building Construction Comparison


Makes Blakely Elementary very reasonably costed compared to the ones the BISD chose to compared, right?

No elementary school is estimated to cost less then the Blakley proposed cost.

What a bargain Bainbridge!!!

Or not  ….

Here is the district’s cost comparison deception:

These six schools the BISD chose for bond cost are MUCH larger than the proposed Blakely Elementary , some have full food service kitchens which is the most expensive cost per square foot in constructing as new elementary school.

Some brief notes on the comparison schools picked by the BISD:

• Issaquah Elem. #16 is budgeted at $36.5M per the Issaquah District website, not $39.3 M. District wants their ementary schools to have 600 student capacity. Much larger school.

• Issaquah Elem. #17 is budgeted at $38.0M per the Issaquah District website, not $39.3 M. Again, target is 600 student capacity. Much larger school.

• Mercer Island Elem. (Northwood) now has a firm construction bid of $30,385,850, has a     prep kitchen, and designed for a school capacity of 550 students. Larger school.

• Arbor Heights Elem. is an 89,000 sq. ft. project designed for 660 students. Much larger school.

• Thornton Creek Elem. is 92,500 sq. ft. project  also designed for 660 students. Much larger school.

• Wing Luke Elem. is projected to be a historical landmark site (drives the costs up). It’s still pre-design, but the tentative plan is for a 90,000 sq. ft. school, up to 660 K-5 students, prep kitchen, and opening in 2020.

Blakey Elementary is penciled out for 63,000 sq. ft. and 450 students …  about the same as Wilkes. Blakey is considerable smaller than the schools the BISD chose to cost compare.

Could the BISD have chosen similar sized schools for cost comparisons?

Absolutely, but then Blakely Elementary would not appear to be the low cost school. Not the message they want to send to the public.

Blakey Elementary , as proposed, is  less than 70% of the size and student loads of the cost compatibles the district selected to use.

The BISD may be factually correct (or close enough) in their cost comparisons … the major deception is that these are much larger schools, and that isn’t revealed to the voting public.

Side Note: The BISD has eight different sq. ft. measurements for Wilkes … all valid, but which one depends on what is counted.  For example, one includes the crawl spaces, janitor cubbies, etc. Another includes anything covered on the playground. When BISD wants to make the case who reasonably priced the school was per square foot, they use one of the larger square footage calculations. Washington State has no standard of measuring different schools for square footage or cost of construction. (Note: The State legislature has directed OSPI to establish such measurable standards, but that hasn’t yet been done).

Part 2 will reveal the multiple $81.2 million bonds, their proposed amortization schedule, and what the bond is expected to cost a median priced residential Bainbridge Island parcel owner.