Higher-than-anticipated costs have led Tukwila School District leaders to reconsider building a dedicated birth-to-kindergarten center. COURTESY IMAGE

Tukwila School District may not build birth-to-kindergarten center approved by voters

It appears the Tukwila School District will not build a dedicated birth-to-kindergarten center as originally called for in a bond measure passed by voters in 2016.

Instead, the district is considering using the money to add more classroom space to expand its preschool programs.

“What we do know as we go into this meeting is we will not build a separate birth-to-K building behind Showalter (Middle School), so for this meeting we are looking for options to meet the bond objectives,” Interim Superintendent Judith Berry said at a public hearing on Oct. 12 to discuss the change in plans.

The final decision on whether to forgo building the new center is left to the school board, which could vote on the matter at its Oct. 24 meeting. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in the boardroom of the district’s administration building, 4640 S. 144th St.

“The board needs to make the final decision on that, but at this point it appears that is simply not financially feasible,” school board member Dave Larson said at the public hearing. Only two of the five board members – Larson and Alicia Waterton – were at the hearing.

One of the main factors in the administration’s recommendation was the higher-than-projected costs for construction, which are up 15 to 30 percent from original estimates, Berry said. Decreased enrollment and a charter school opening in Tukwila next fall also played a role in the decision, she said.

The cost of the birth-to-kindergarten facility was originally budgeted at $25.2 million of the $99 million bond measure.

The district is considering using some of that money to construct additional classrooms at either some or all of the district’s three elementary schools to offer more preschool classes. The district has ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program) and Head Start preschool classes at Thorndyke and Cascade View elementaries but not Tukwila.

Berry said the district could add two to six additional preschool programs. Modular buildings could be built at the existing elementary schools to create the additional space. The birth-to-kindergarten center called for about 24 classrooms – two for birth-to-3 programs, six for preschool and 12 for kindergarten, leaving four additional rooms.

Berry said the emphasis has shifted serving preschool students.

“After talking to the specialists, we thought it was best to take care of 4-year-olds first and 3-year-olds,” she said.

Heather Newman, the district’s director of early and elementary education, said there is a need for additional preschool opportunities in the district.

The district serves 118 students through its ECEAP and Head Start programs, which have income requirements.

“We are always full,” Newman said. “We do a minimal amount of recruiting. … We are at capacity and well beyond.”

Terra Dupont, ECEAP family support specialist at Cascade View Elementary, said there is constantly a waiting list for eligible students.

“Every day we receive many phone calls, many emails, many walk-in families that are very upset because there is not enough early learning programs in Tukwila,” Dupont said. “They feel that when they pay taxes there should be a preschool program for their children to go to.”

Families that don’t qualify for ECEAP or Head Start still look for affordable preschool options, Newman said.

“We have a number of families approach us who are over income, typically sightly over income,” she said. “They are in that gray area. For these families, the cost of high-quality early learning is out of reach. I would like us to look at some options.

Keeping preschool and kindergarten classes at the elementary schools, instead of building a new facility, would create a one-stop-shop for families, Newman said.

“I really like that idea of families being able to have a home base, to really get to know the administrators, the teachers, the culture at the building and to minimize those transitions for students and for families,” she said. “Not to have to transition from not just grade to grade but potentially building to building. That’s cutting out at least one, if not several, transitions for kids and families to be able to give kids that experience of stability over the years is really attractive.”

Jeff Feeney, director of education management for KMB Architects that oversees the bond projects, said building additional classrooms would cost about $12 million, which would include improvements to address parking and traffic concerns at the elementaries.

The additional money originally slated for the birth-to-kindergarten center could be used to install air conditioning at Foster High School and projects at other schools.

Projects already funded by the bond include a remodel and expansion at Foster and upgrades at Showalter and each of the elementary schools.

Communication concerns

Tukwila resident Jonathan Joseph said during the public hearing he was disappointed the district did not do a better job of informing the community about the public hearing and the proposed changes.

“I believe this meeting was put in place just to say we are having a meeting,” Joseph said. “But the leadership within this district has not done its due diligence and going out to the public to make sure that they are aware of this situation, and that you are actually getting responses from our community to make sure they understand what is happening.”

Joseph hopes the district will hear from the public before making a decision.

“I feel that you have the legal authority to make a decision on the birth-to-K center, but it is borderline unethical and immoral for you to make that decision without reaching out to your public again and making sure that there are community meetings that they know about what is happening,” he said.

The board and administration needs to do a better job of reaching out the community, Joseph said.

“Just like you do when you ask for our vote, when your ask for our bond, when you ask for our taxes that you come door-to-door and say, ‘Hey, this is something important,’ ” he said.

The public can submit comments to the district on the proposed changes by emailing the school board at tsdboard@tukwila.wednet.edu or through a Google form on the district’s website, tukwilaschools.org.

Sonya Byorick, a kindergarten teacher at Cascade View, said preschool and kindergarten teachers feel they haven’t been included in the process.

They weren’t asked for their opinions about creating a birth-to-kindergarten center, which many disagreed with, she said.

“We were never involved in any decision when the birth-to-K building was talked about,” Byorick said. “We asked to be involved, we emailed to be involved, we just happened to find out there was a meeting and we all showed up. It is interesting to us how we now have changed our tune from that the birth-to-K (center) should house the children away from the other schools when the teachers were saying just the opposite. But now we are saying it should be in the schools.”

Larson said he hopes that the teachers will be included in future decisions.

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