City of Lakewood blamed for presumed closure of Woodbrook Middle School

After more than a decade of deferring a decision, the Clover Park School District is preparing to determine the fate of Woodbrook Middle School in Lakewood.

A district facilities advisory committee recently agreed it’s time to close the 53-year-old school, which needs nearly $15 million in repairs.

The committee is to recommend the closure at a January school board meeting. The recommendation will include scenarios for how to accommodate the staff, teachers and roughly 450 students at the school.

The decision on whether to close the school and how soon that could happen ultimately rests with the school board.

As the school board weighs what to do, the district is feeling outside pressure to decide the school’s fate.

The city of Lakewood has positioned the Woodbrook community — situated between Interstate 5 and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods — to become a leading manufacturing hub.

The city estimates the business park could have up to a $1 billion economic effect on the region.

As interest in the industrial area from private developers has grown in recent years, the city’s patience with the school district has shrunk.

And with news of the potential closure spreading among Woodbrook staff members and ultimately the community, some are criticizing the city for choosing private development over schools.

If school board members want to close Woodbrook by the end of this school year, the window to make that happen is shrinking fast, said Clover Park School District Superintendent Debbie LeBeau.

The board must follow a public process. In this case, that would require a districtwide boundary change to move the displaced students to the district’s other middle schools, Lochburn and Mann.

Regardless of the timeline, there is no question something must be done, LeBeau said.

“Outside consultants have said it would cost between $6 million and $15 million to just keep that school open,” she said. “That’s not even upgrading to 21st century technology.”

Other major deficiencies include a leaking roof and failing septic system.

The old septic drain fields can’t absorb water, which causes pooling in the parking lot after consecutive rainy days. The water must be pumped out up to two times a day to keep the lot accessible.

District officials estimate it would cost “hundreds of thousands” of dollars to fix the problem because the school would have to connect to sewer lines recently installed in Woodbrook.

The city started planning for the industrial park a decade ago but its most recent efforts to create the 150-acre light industrial hub in the community happened four years ago when the City Council changed zoning in the area.

Woodbrook Middle School is inside the industrial boundaries, which means that even if the district wanted to rebuild the school, it couldn’t because zoning wouldn’t allow it.

Initially, when the zoning was changed, the city made accommodations for the school. It determined the school district could make repairs and upgrades to the facility, but if the land were sold, a school would no longer be allowed.

It also held back on enforcement, such as requiring the school to hook up to sewers, because the district had indicated it planned to one day close the school, Lakewood development director David Bugher said.

“The city has been an enabler to some extent,” Mayor Don Anderson said. “We haven’t required them to hook up to the sewer system like other people have been required to hook up, and they don’t have certain safety amenities that others would be required to have.”

Now the City Council is considering removing some of the accommodations it afforded, ultimately restricting what the district could do with the facility.

The change would allow the building to remain, but the school district can’t expand its footprint, meaning no temporary classrooms or portables could be added.

The change is a subtle (or not-so-subtle) nudge by the city to push the district to make a decision.

“We’ve moved up our process to accommodate the City Council’s request for urgency,” LeBeau said. “They felt we’ve postponed a decision.”

Tillicum resident David Anderson, a Woodbrook Middle School alumnus, believes the city is forcing the closure of the school.

The contention that the school is old and needs to be replaced is “a subplot to a greater objective by the city to increase its tax revenue through an industrial complex,” said Anderson, who heads the Tillicum/Woodbrook Neighborhood Association.

“The school board is over a barrel,” he said.

Losing the school would have a “huge” impact on the Woodbrook community and the military, he said.

District enrollment shows 75 percent of Woodbrook students live on JBLM.

Jim Schell, president of the Clover Park Education Association, shares a similar concern.

He said he isn’t picking sides but it’s hard to avoid the impression the school is being closed for “economic pursuits” instead of because that’s what’s best for the community and students.

“I hope that it’s not too late to consider a more creative alternative, but if that’s not the case, then I hope that the city and the district both work to really communicate to the entire community the rationale behind their decisions,” Schell said.

The school district has talked about closing or rebuilding Woodbrook since 2005, LeBeau said.

The time has come to finish that conversation.

“It’s one of those financial decisions,” she said. “People will say, ‘Then it’s all about the money.’ Well, it is when we have finite resources and we have a lot of schools that need to be replaced.”