The Issaquah School District (ISD) is currently planning to build a new elementary and high school at Providence Heights, which is located just outside the southern border of Sammamish adjacent to the 228th Ave / SE 43rd Way corridor. This project has re-ignited a debate over development in Sammamish, with the City of Sammamish publicly opposing the construction of these two schools.
In this episode, we interviewed Ron Thiele, the superintendent of ISD, who makes the case on why these schools need to be built as soon as possible. We also speak to Kavya Yerramili, a junior at Skyline High School, to talk about her experiences with school overcrowding before COVID-19 forced Skyline to implement remote learning. Finally, we play a few clips from the Nov. 17 Sammamish City Council meeting, where both Mayor Karen Moran and Councilmember Kent Treen spoke in opposition to ISD’s plan for building these schools.
Unfortunately, Mayor Moran, as well as City of Sammamish staff, declined multiple invitations to participate in this episode and make their views more public and accessible to our community. We at Indy on Air hope they will change their mind in the future, and be more willing to speak to local media on issues that matter to Sammamish residents.
Below is an excerpt of our interview with Superintendent Ron Thiele:
Why does ISD want to build new schools?
RT: The conversation around these schools was part of the conversation we had in our school district community in 2015, leading up to eventually making a proposal for a school construction bond, and that bond passed in April 2016.
So why did we even have the bond? Why are we building these schools? Overcrowding in our schools is the biggest issue that led to the need for more schools. I came to ISD in 2001, and we had 13,000 students. Last year, we eclipsed 21,000 students. So we experienced 8,000 students growth in 19 years. Most years, we were among the fastest growing school districts in the State of Washington. Some years we were in fact the fastest growing district in the State of Washington.
At the time, Skyline and Issaquah high schools were two of the largest high schools in the State of Washington. They were both in the top 10 for the largest high schools in the state; requiring a lot of portables and really taxing the facilities. People in our community don’t like the fact that we have some of the largest high schools. So it’s a desire to right-size our schools.
Why was the Providence Heights location chosen? Aren’t there other places where the schools can be built?
RT: Ultimately, it sits almost exactly in the middle between Skyline and Issaquah high, my two most crowded schools that I need to get a lot of population out of. It is inside the urban growth boundary. In Washington state, there is something called the Growth Management Act (GMA), and what it attempts to do is stop suburban sprawl. The idea was, we didn’t want to populate all of our mountains and hillsides with housing developments. We wanted to concentrate our growth into cities and protect land outside of those cities. The GMA is a state law and each county has to implement and set the rules for how it’s implemented. In 2012, King County made adjustments to how they implemented the GMA that prevented school districts from building what’s called outside of the line.
[For Providence Heights], we didn’t have to condemn anybody’s houses to get it. It’s almost perfectly situated for us to put schools there.
When looking at the plan, it looks like there will be one combined entry/exit point. What are some of the mitigation efforts to ensure a smooth flow of traffic on 228th Ave SE?
RT: Given the population growth in our area, I would anticipate 228th is going to change. We have traffic right now. I will lessen the traffic around Skyline High School when I take 750 kids out of that school. I will lessen the traffic on 2nd Ave in downtown Issaquah right outside of Issaquah High School. To say that the high school is going to make traffic worse in the community, I would push back against that. It’s going to diffuse the traffic over three locations that is currently in two locations.
I’m not on the city council in either city (Sammamish and Issaquah). Those are decisions they’ll have to make. I will anticipate quite a bit of mitigation that’ll have to happen in terms of road improvements and lights and things.
The other thing we would do when we ultimately have the elementary and high school built on the site is, we’ll stagger the times. Not everybody will hit at the same time. Staff will arrive typically earlier. Then students would start to arrive. I would strongly encourage students to ride the bus. That’s the best, most sustainable system to use to keep as many cars off the roads as we can.
In September, Mayor Karen Moran wrote a strongly-worded letter (starting on page 9) to your district, saying the City of Sammamish does not support the building of these two schools at the Providence Heights location. Do you foresee Sammamish as being a blocker to getting these schools built?
RT: I understand and I have empathy for our city managers and city council members. I’ve known many of them over the years. I understand their concerns about traffic and so forth. They’re legitimate concerns. Of course, my problem is I have to house students for educational purposes. That’s the mission of ISD, and we need the appropriate facilities that are clean and safe to do that. Again, we didn’t create the growth. We’re just responding to it.
I understand the concerns the City has. We will certainly and are always willing to work with them. Do I think they will stop us from building the schools? Frankly I don’t. We do have a right. We own the property. We will follow the laws. We will do all the proper permitting.
Wek ask more questions, covering topics such as environmental impact, alternatives to building a stadium and ball fields, and how boundaries will be set for the new schools’ student populations. To listen to the full interview, go to the episode and fast forward to where this segment starts (time stamp: 8:40).