Parents who are displeased about a delay in the construction timeline for the new Wainwright Intermediate School in Fircrest say that what has angered them most is a lack of communication about the project from Tacoma Public Schools.
“We feel very much out of the loop,” Lynne Dickson told the Tacoma School Board Thursday night.
“As a parent, I find the delay completely unacceptable, and the lack of communication even more so,” said Greg Kleiner.
“It would have been very helpful … if they had been communicating along the way with us,” added Glory Tichy.
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Still, she said she was encouraged by the response from board members Thursday.
“Delays in construction are inevitable,” said board member Scott Heinze. “But I would like to make sure we engage families.
“When we have to come up with an alternative, those people who are going to be directly impacted should be consulted.”
Wainwright was scheduled to open in September as an International Baccalaureate (IB) school for students in grades four through six. Seventh and eighth graders will be added in subsequent years.
As a parent, I find the delay completely unacceptable, and the lack of communication even more so
Greg Kleiner, parent
The school district announced earlier this week that an unusually wet winter, as well as a shortage of labor and supplies — the result of a regional construction boom — prompted the delays. As a result, officials decided Wainwright students would have to start the school year at nearby Whittier Elementary.
They promised the new Wainwright would open no later than January, and possibly earlier. In the meantime, temporary classrooms would be carved from spaces like Whittier’s music or computer rooms and — most distasteful to parents — the school’s basement.
Board member Debbie Winskill said she would like to have a look in the Whittier basement “to see if I’d want my children in that space.”
Stephen Murakami, the school district’s chief operating officer, described the circumstances behind the construction delay as a “perfect storm.” He said record winter rainfall made laying Wainwright’s footings and foundations difficult.
The school district was required to perform a “massive soil remediation” on the site, where soil had been contaminated with arsenic from the former Asarco smelter near Point Defiance. Murakami said contamination was even found in the mortar of the old Wainwright building, which was razed to make way for the new school.
Wainwright work was also complicated by the desire to leave some of the trees on the site intact, which made digging out contaminated soil on the treed part of the property labor-intensive, Murakami said.
Market conditions also affected the timeline.
“Material and labor are both in high demand now,” he said.
Even parents who concede those points say temporarily crowding Whittier, which currently houses just under 550 students, with more than 700 students this fall would be a mistake. They say it will disrupt everything from restroom breaks to lunch time. One parent described the current state of the Whittier lunchroom as “miserable,” and predicted it would only get worse with the addition of more students.
Parents said they have been told students will need to do P.E. outdoors, because the school’s multipurpose room will be put to other uses. They question how effective a music program will be if the teacher is forced to operate from a cart that’s wheeled from classroom to classroom.
Parent Jim Ottman said the school district erred by compressing the Wainwright construction schedule into just over a year.
“Why push yourself?” he asked.
I would like to make sure we engage families
Scott Heinze, school board member
Some parents asked whether spending more on contractor overtime would make the project feasible for a September opening.
Board President Karen Vialle reminded parents that the district is in the midst of building or remodeling 14 schools with money from a $500 million bond approved by voters in 2013. She said she’d be willing to look at the cost of various options.
But she also reminded Wainwright parents that the district must complete its construction projects “within a finite budget.”
Murakami said the contractor, Puyallup-based Neeley Construction and Cabinet Co., has already voluntarily extended work hours and erected tenting over some of the worksite in an effort to speed things up.
But within the past month, he said, the district concluded that no amount of acceleration could bring the project home on time for its original deadline of Aug. 1. That’s when the building was scheduled for “substantial completion,” which would leave room before school starts for the addition of technology, moving furniture and materials into the building and other finishing touches.
The contractor now estimates the substantial completion date as Oct. 7, Murakami said.
Asked whether the school district would seek to extract financial penalties from the contractor for the missed deadline, district legal counsel Shannon McMinimee said that issue will be reviewed when the project is completed.
It would have been very helpful … if they had been communicating along the way with us
Glory Tichy, parent
One alternative school officials explored was busing some or all Wainwright students temporarily to the former Hunt Middle School. That’s an alternative favored by several of the parents who addressed the school board Thursday, as well as by Winskill.
Hunt closed in 2010, but has housed several groups of students from around the city while their schools are rebuilt. Currently, it’s home to about 400 students from Stewart Middle School, which is undergoing renovation.
Murakami said Stewart kids occupy three of the old Hunt buildings. Moving Wainwright students into one of the other Hunt buildings — one of which is unheated and is used to store furniture — would require substantial work and expenditures to make it habitable, he said.
Another alternative would utilize portable buildings near Skyline Elementary.
Murakami points out that Tacoma isn’t the only school district dealing with construction delays.
The Renton School District was scheduled to open a new middle school this fall, but the district announced in February that the school won’t be ready by then. Officials decided to delay the opening of the new Renton school until fall 2017.
That’s an option some Wainwright parents say they favor. But others say they have already decided to enroll their children in another school or even another school district.
Dickson called for Tacoma district staff and parents to work together.
“Parents are brainstorming ideas,” she said.“The only way we are going to get through this and accept whatever the solution is … is if we can have as much information as possible as quickly as possible.”