Some Fircrest parents say they are no happier now than when Tacoma Public Schools first told them about construction delays that will keep the new Wainwright Intermediate School from opening on time this fall.
At two parent meetings last week, the school district rolled out updated plans for dealing with the delay that were prepared after parents were surveyed about options.
But the bottom line remains the same as when the district first announced the problem to parents in late March: Wainwright-bound students will spend the first few months of the 2016-17 school year at nearby Whittier Elementary School. And between 100 and 130 of them will have classes in temporary rooms that will be fashioned out of the Whittier basement.
Students will be in their temporary quarters until the new building is complete; the district has promised it will be no later than January.
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“It’s been presented to us as a fait accompli,” said Lynne Dickson, caregiver for a young relative who attends Whittier.
We were asked to make decisions based on information you had, but we didn’t
Lynne Dickson, speaking to district officials
The district surveyed Whittier parents about several options: lodging Wainwright students in temporary quarters at Whittier or busing sixth-graders to the old Hunt Middle School, where they would share a campus with students from Stewart Middle School, which also is under construction.
The survey results indicated 39 percent of fifth-grade parents (next year’s sixth-grade parents) wanted to stay at Whittier, while 36 percent favored the move to Hunt, district spokeswoman Alicia Lawver said. The rest wanted other options or expressed no preference, she said.
Among Whittier parents, roughly half favored the move to Hunt, a quarter favored the Whittier option and another quarter proposed other options, Lawver said.
With opinion divided, officials took another look at their plans and decided to stick with the Whittier solution, which they say is also the most economical.
“We determined that it is the best option,” said Donna Basil, who will serve as principal for both Whittier and Wainwright. “We want to minimize impacts. The students are all part of our Whittier family.”
After Wainwright is completed, Whittier will house students from preschool through third grade. Basil said her vision is for the two schools to function as one campus, with two buildings.
Lunches will begin at 11 a.m. and continue until 1 p.m
The school district blames the construction delay on bad weather and a shortage of materials and labor. One problem — a shortage of steel — surfaced as early as last fall and put the timeline behind by four to five weeks, according to the district.
Contractors erected temporary tenting to block out rainfall and keep working. Roofers and steel framers have been working weekends to accelerate progress. But the measures weren’t enough. The district began looking at an alternate starting date and studying options, said Rob Sawatzky, the district’s head of planning and construction. By March, officials had decided on the plan to temporarily house Wainwright kids at Whittier. But the news was leaked to parents before district communications could go out, officials said.
Parents have asked whether increased spending on the project could get the school open this September. But the district says the school already is too far behind.
“No amount of money would guarantee us getting in on time,” chief operating officer Steve Murakami told them.
Dickson, as a caregiver for a student, is particularly concerned about why parents weren’t informed about problems with the Wainwright project earlier.
“Families were asked to choose Wainwright,” Dickson told officials at a parent meeting Wednesday. “We were asked to make decisions based on information you had, but we didn’t.”
Wainwright is being built as an intermediate school for students in grades four through eight. Students in grades four through six had been scheduled to move in this fall, with seventh and eighth grades added in subsequent years.
Whittier, which has slightly fewer than 550 students, will start the new school year with more than 700, if projections hold.
Parents are concerned about overcrowding and overloading facilities, such as restrooms and the lunchroom. They worry about whether the kids in the basement — the lower level, in district parlance — will be able to make it out in an emergency and how they’ll be protected from intruders. They question how the space will be made accessible for disabled students and comfortable for all.
And some are skeptical that their kids will be in the new building by January.
“What happens if we have to keep these students here all year long?” one dad asked.
Some concerns were addressed at the parent meetings, and Lawver said more answers will be posted soon on the Wainwright construction page on the Tacoma Public Schools website.
It’s not perfect, but it will work
Deanne Crichton-Achord, teacher
Murakami assured parents that the temporary lower-level classrooms will meet building codes. Officials promised increased lighting and improved air quality systems for the temporary classrooms.
But parent Denise Milles said she plans to investigate further whether permits for the basement classrooms are in order.
“If they’re not, there will be accountability,” she said. “That person or persons who are signing off on a plan that is not safe for our children ... will have to answer when there is a problem, when there’s a fire, when there is some sort of a tragedy because the school has been overpacked.”
Murakami also talked about how the district will attempt to outfit the basement with some of the flexible classroom arrangements and furnishings that students will use in the new Wainwright.
Other changes that will take place during the temporary Whittier arrangement include:
▪ Adding a fourth lunch period to accommodate the bigger student body. Lunches will begin at 11 a.m. and continue until 1 p.m.
▪ Computers on mobile carts
▪ Fifth-grade band will practice in the Whittier library
▪ Physical education and recess will make use of gym space, an existing covered play area and, with approval from the city of Fircrest, neighboring play fields.
“We want to start working with you as a team, to make sure that when we move forward, we’re doing it in a positive way,” said Principal Basil.
“It’s not perfect, but it will work,” said Deanne Crichton-Achord, who will be the sixth-grade science teacher in the fall. “We’ll make it work.”
Looking for more Wainwright information?
Head to the Tacoma Public Schools website at www.tacoma.k12.wa.us and click on the “Building for Achievement” page.