Tahoma High in donut hole not viable

Tahoma School District officials are on the hunt again for a place to build a new Tahoma High School after efforts to buy property in the donut hole from King County fell through earlier this month.

The decision was made to discontinue negotiations Feb. 1, according to Tahoma Superintendent Mike Maryanski.

“The difference between what we’re willing to pay and the county’s needs for that property is too great,” Maryanski said. “It was a complicated process because it’s not a surplus piece of property.”

The donut hole is 156 acres of county-owned property located off Southeast Kent-Kangley Road and 228th Street Southeast — and is designated rural and unincorporated yet is wholly surrounded by the city of Maple Valley. It is home to nine holes of Elk Run Golf Course, a 13-acre county transportation maintenance facility and a large stand of trees.

Two factors played into the start of the conversation regarding building a high school in the donut hole. First was the failure of the district’s construction bond measure in April 2011.

Second, a few months later, county officials began an effort to change the policy on school construction outside of the urban growth boundary.

Tahoma Junior High is outside the urban growth boundary but was built because a tight line sewer system was put in to serve the school — and only the school.

As district officials began evaluating the impacts of the bond failure and the proposed change to county policy, a whole host of creative, out of the box ideas emerged.

While Maryanski was serving on a rural school siting task force in 2011 he planted one of those ideas — a land swap between the district and the county. The swap would have exchanged the district’s 30 or so acres next to the junior high for land inside the donut hole. It would have allowed the district to build a brand new high school that would accomplish a number of things such as addressing overcrowded classrooms and high use of portables while also helping TSD work on its new initiative to help students become not just ready for college but ready for the future, whatever that holds for them after high school.

Eventually the land swap idea didn’t seem to be mutually acceptable, so, the two parties began discussing dollar amounts for a purchase of the property the school district would need.

Maryanski said the county staff were collaborative and helpful but what complicated the process was the fact the county’s roads division owns the property and continues to operate on the site.

“What the county needs to get in the sale of the property, which created a difference between what we’re wanting and willing to pay … that’s too great, that difference, so we mutually agreed that we need to move forward in a different way,” Maryanski said. “So, that’s behind us now. It doesn’t change the vision or the concept, it just changes where the vision will come alive.”

That concept, which has emerged as a more refined and definite vision through conversations both within the school system and the community, is of a regional learning center, Maryanski said. It would fit with the vision of Tahoma’s Future Ready initiative as well as efforts to provide more than just a high school diploma to teenagers in the district.

“We’ve been engaging with folks in industry to ensure that our young people are ready for careers, not just for college,”  Maryanksi said. “We’re working with the folks from Renton Technical and Green River so that they can leave high school with an AA. The vision that’s coming alive in the community is living wage jobs.”

As the vision moves forward, the district is also collaborating with the city of Maple Valley, the Greater Maple Valley-Black Diamond Chamber of Commerce and the private sector.

In the meantime, a group of community members and district staff are evaluating how to align grade levels in existing buildings with a new high school which would serve grades nine through 12. Currently the high school is 10th through 12th with a junior high for eighth and ninth graders.

One element of the county’s process to change its policies for the siting of rural schools did come out in Tahoma’s favor: if the district needs to build on the land it owns next to Tahoma Junior High, it can, however that is not ideal.

“While all those decision are being made we need to step back and look at where we can site a new high school,” Maryanski said. “That’s a conversation we are going to have now. It (the land next to the junior high) is a nice piece of property outside of the urban growth boundary that we would like to not develop … it’s a two lane road that feeds into a two lane road and we’re talking about a comprehensive high school with grades nine through 12 with a lot of kids and a lot of adults.”

The district needs to make some decisions and do something to manage the issues of overcrowding. Tahoma has to find room for students. At this point, the best way to do that appears to be to build a new high school, which would alleviate capacity issues from the top down.

“We’re feeling a heightened sense of urgency now that we couldn’t move forward with the county,” Maryanski said. “We’re crowded, we’re full. We don’t have a lot of choice.”

Projections for student growth mean there is no time to waste. The three largest elementary schools in the state are in the Tahoma School District — Lake Wilderness Elementary has about 1,100 students right now.

Maryanski said district staff will look at every option available for a high school site within the urban growth boundary.

“Once we make a decision on where to site a new high school we would move forward on a bond date and a dollar amount,” Maryanski said. “We’re working backwards, our hope is to have a bond measure ready to go by November.”

This time, the superintendent said, the pitch for a construction bond measure will look different. The April 2011 bond asked for $120 million to build a new Lake Wilderness Elementary, refurbish a number of schools, add on to the junior high and high school, as well as cover maintenance needs.

“It will be a vision that comes alive as opposed to our previous bond measure. The driver was how do we create space for kids,” Maryanski said. “If you could have one of your schools truly driven by a vision it would be your high school, that’s the direction we’re going right now.”

A decision the Tahoma School Board will need to reach in the very near future is how to house students at other grade levels. The board received a report Tuesday night at its meeting that covered a half dozen options.

Meanwhile, Maryanski said, district staff have gotten feedback from community members that the concept of a high school that could serve as a regional learning center is resonating in a way the proposed construction in the 2011 bond measure did not.

“We have people coming forward who, when they hear the concept, say, ‘What can I do and how can I help,’” Maryanski said. “We’re engaging in conversation that we didn’t initiate, that we didn’t have the last time.That’s not the normal experience we have with a bond measure — if that’s an indicator, then that’s a positive one for us.”

Reach Assistant Editor Kris Hill at khill@maplevalleyreporter.com or 425-432-1209 ext. 5054.