Parents of students who thought their kids were headed to a new Wainwright Intermediate School in Fircrest this fall are questioning a Tacoma Public Schools announcement that the school — currently under construction — won’t be ready on time.
The school district said Monday that an unusually wet winter, as well as other factors, means many of the students in the inaugural class at the new Wainwright will start the school year in temporary basement classrooms at nearby Whittier Elementary.
The district told parents the arrangement is temporary, and that students should be able to move into the new Wainwright “by the time they return from winter break and possibly sooner.”
Mitch Neeley, president of Puyallup-based Neeley Construction and Cabinet Co., the main contractor on the project, said his company is working with the school district to minimize the delay. He said a completion date after winter break would be a worst-case scenario.
The school district has promised parent meetings on the delay later this spring.
Still, parents are worried. They have raised questions about the timing of the announcement, about safety and overcrowding at Whittier, and about whether promised curriculum and programming will be in place.
Parents say Whittier is already crowded and question whether there will be enough room in the cafeteria, or even in the restrooms, for additional students.
District officials said that, even with the new students, Whittier will meet both emergency exit requirements and plumbing fixture requirements for the projected student count. They promise that whatever is done to create temporary spaces will adhere to safety standards and building codes.
The intent is to minimize impacts on students by keeping the community together and eliminating the need to bus students to an alternate site
District spokeswoman Alicia Lawver
Officials said there are currently 543 preschool through fifth-grade students at Whittier. They estimate the temporary addition of Wainwright students, based on current enrollment projections, will bring the population to 766. That includes three classrooms of sixth-graders who weren’t at Whittier before, as well as students who were re-directed to Whittier under recent elementary school boundary changes.
“While this transition plan will be a temporary tight fit, the intent is to minimize impacts on students by keeping the community together and eliminating the need to bus students to an alternate site,” said district spokeswoman Alicia Lawver.
Parents are worried about whether students in basement classrooms might be in danger in an earthquake or fire. They also point out that Whittier’s basement floods regularly.
Lawver said there would be five classrooms in the Whittier basement, with a maximum of 30 students each, for a total of no more than 150 students. She also said that Champions, the school’s before- and after-school program, will remain at Whittier.
“I’m upset,” said Kathleen Geer, whose sixth-grader enrolled at Wainwright for the fall. She said she feels deceived.
Geer said school officials have been hosting morning coffee chats with parents to talk about the new Wainwright, which will introduce a new International Baccalaureate (IB) program for students in grades four through eight. Students in grades four through six are scheduled to kick off the program this fall.
But Geer said that, as of last week, the construction delay hadn’t been mentioned at parent meetings.
School Board member Debbie Winskill said board members learned about a month ago that the project might be delayed. But she said options for students, and the decision to house students temporarily at Whittier, came later. She said it would cost “substantially more” to speed up the project in time for a fall opening.
Neeley was the low bidder on the Wainwright project, at $22 million. The contract was approved by the school district in July 2015. At that time, it was scheduled for “substantial completion” by Aug. 1 of this year.
766 Projected starting enrollment at Whittier this fall
“We have been impacted by the weather and the contracting climate,” said Mitch Neeley. He noted that an improving economy has made it more difficult to attract subcontractors for the project.
District director of planning and construction Rob Sawatzky said record-setting rainfall meant the contractor had to deal with soft, unstable soils. He said the difficulty in hiring subcontractors, as well as in obtaining materials, has impacted other projects as well.
But Greg Kleiner, the parent of an incoming Wainwright sixth-grader, said the district is guilty of “bad project management.”
Asked if the company would be required to pay a penalty for the delay, district officials said Tuesday that they were still talking to the contractor about those and other issues. Neeley declined comment on that question.
District officials say two other Tacoma schools under construction — McCarver Elementary and Stewart Middle School — are on track. McCarver is scheduled to open in the fall and Stewart in 2017. But both those projects involved remodeling historic buildings, rather than starting from scratch like at Wainwright. Officials said wet weather had less of an impact on those projects, since much of the work was inside existing buildings.
The old Wainwright Elementary closed in 2011 and was razed to make way for the new Wainwright Intermediate School, which began construction last summer. Its funding is part of a $500 million bond measure approved by voters in 2013.
Parents plan to be at the School Board meeting Thursday to voice their concerns. Kleiner said the School Board promised the community Wainwright would be done on time.
“Whatever you have to do, get it finished,” he said. “This is on the board’s shoulders to get it done now.”