Renton school district will need 42 additional classrooms in next few years

Experiencing a rapid period of growth locally and statewide, the Renton School District is projected to need 42 new classrooms in the next two-and-a-half to three years, a district committee found.

The Enrollment Review Committee, led by Chairperson Louis Pappas, presented the findings at a district school board meeting Wednesday night.

"Forty-two new classrooms represents the equivalent of two new elementary schools, under normal enrollment growth circumstances it is a five- to seven-year process to justify the expense for new buildings and then convince our taxpayers to fund them," said Lynn Desmarais, board president via email. "Two to three years is a timeline I don't think we've seen since the 1960's during a period of rapid growth.

"But keep in mind," she added, "this is a statewide issue, unlike the local expansion of Boeing back then, and each district's approach will depend on the number and condition of buildings they have available."

It was the task of the 25-person review committee to review enrollment projections, building capacity and analyze portable classroom needs for the 2014 to 2015 and 2015 to 2016 school years. They were also tasked with reviewing last year's middle school boundaries and considering the potential impact on school facilities due to the McCleary decision and district-wide enrollment growth.

The McCleary decision refers to the 2012 State Supreme Court decision that ruled Washington state is not amply funding basic education under the state Constitution. The specifics and guidelines as to how that will happened aren't know yet, but district officials warn the effect could be significant.

"We've got to be creative and we've got to plan; the clock is ticking," said Pappas.

Renton's annual growth rate is 1.5 percent annually, which amounts to about 210 to 220 kids a year. Pappas called the steady growth rate fortunate, but called out the greatest need and concern at the elementary school level. The growth rate at the elementary school levels is greater than the secondary schools in the district.

Ten elementary schools are at or above capacity, which is an upward trend that is expected to continue for the next couple of years. Dimmit and Nelson middle schools are operating near capacity, while all the high schools are under capacity. The majority of the elementary schools were said to need three additional classrooms in the future.

The need for additional classrooms is no surprise to school board members and district staff who've been observing and working on the issue. All the school board members have been involved in the efforts to varying degrees, as have Superintendent Merri Rieger and assistant superintendents John Knutson and Tammy Campbell.

"No, this issue has been on our radar since students registered for full-day kindergarten in large numbers last spring and summer, and several buildings had to create classrooms by repurposing other spaces," said Desmarais. "We have been aware of these new specifics for several weeks, and have already discussed the facilities impact with our local legislators.  More money for facilities has implications beyond the legislature, as well, because the state has revenue from federal trust lands that is designated for school construction that is often thought to be under-utilized."

Pappas urged the board to continue to aggressively investigate solutions, saying it deserved "beast mode" attention, using a Seahawks analogy. The district has already begun analysis, taking another look at each building potential and possible new sites.

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