Issaquah School Board gives admin building demolition thumbs-up

The long search for property to house one of the Issaquah School District’s four new schools is over.

At the June 28 Issaquah School Board meeting, the board voted to move ahead with demolishing the current Central Administration building so that a new middle school can be built on the property instead. The board also approved exercising eminent domain over a property for a new Central Administration building.

This requires a resdistribution of bond funds, as the $535.5 million school bond, which was passed in 2016, was meant to fund the property acquisition and construction of four new schools — two new elementary schools, a sixth middle school and a fourth high school.

Jake Kuper, the district’s chief of finance, told the board that finding property large and flat enough for a school has been taking “a significant amount of time, energy and money,” and so far, very little has turned up.

The school search is difficult for a number of reasons, including the limiting geography of the area, the fact that any new school must be built within the King County Urban Growth Boundary and the expensive and extremely competitive real estate market in the area.

“We just need some seats. We need to open some schools,” Kuper said.

The move will not only give the rapidly growing district one of its badly needed new schools, but it will also give the district a chance to attain a larger administration facility. With a growing district comes a growing administration, and the district is quickly growing out of the current building.

“The parking is terrible … I have hardly any closets left, we’re down bathrooms … This place has been chopped, re-chopped, and chopped more than it need be,” Kuper said. “You get to a point from a fiduciary standpoint … [when] it’s time to relocate.”

Superintendent Ron Thiele noted that in the past year alone, the district had “added 15 new staff members just to this building,” and said that he “would anticipate adding quite a few more staff to this building in the next coming couple of years, just to catch up and keep up with the growth.”

“I still don’t have a place for them all,” Kuper said of the 15 new employees.

Director Suzanne Weaver said that the current Central Administration building “in the long run … isn’t really what we want or need for a district of this size.”

“I think it’s fiscally a very responsible solution,” she said of the proposed swap in funds.

After unanimously passing the resolution to repurpose the bond funds and switch the admin building for the middle school, the board turned to the resolution to condemn an office building at 5150 220th Ave. SE in Issaquah. The taxpayer of record for the 5.65 acre-property is Onward Investors, LLC.

Bonnie Geers, senior vice president of Bellevue-based builder Quadrant Homes, asked the board to reconsider. She said that Quadrant Homes has been planning to purchase and use the space for a housing development that would “bring the city of Issaquah an ownership opportunity that does not start with $1 million and above.”

The development would include for-sale townhomes and an apartment complex with an affordable housing component.

Geers said that Quadrant Homes had “been in contract with the seller on this property since last fall and made some significant investment in doing some feasibility and ultimately starting our site plan.” She also said that Quadrant had been in talks with the city of Issaquah, planning how to develop the property once the city-wide development moratorium is lifted.

According to Geers, Quadrant had been notified about the eminent domain action only the week before the school board meeting.

“I know how difficult it is to acquire school sites … I urge the board though to consider that perhaps administrative office sites are not as unique or perhaps not as difficult to acquire … It would be ideal I think for you to find a site that had an unencumbered seller,” she said.

Board President Lisa Callan asked Kuper if other sites had been considered.

Kuper responded in the affirmative, but said that he and Thiele had looked “all around the district” and that the site currently being discussed was the most ideal option in terms of parking space, location and size.

“We do believe that this is currently the best and most feasible site,” he said.

“It’s literally right in the middle of the school district,” Thiele said. He also pointed out that the building would need very little work in comparison to other buildings that he and Kuper had viewed.

Callan asked if the new building would “get us past 10 years.”

Thiele said that he felt “much more comfortable to say you’d last 10 years” in the new site than in the current building. He noted that the proposed new building had twice the accommodation and three times the parking.

The board voted unanimously to exercise eminent domain over the potential new office building.

The district will first “move forward with an offer to purchase,” according to Denise Stiffarm, the district’s attorney.

Stiffarm said that the entire condemnation process could take “up to a year” if a settlement cannot be reached, but that “the hope would be to try to settle in lieu of that.”

“Because it is under contract with another property, the seller cannot simply accept your offer … That’s the complication that’s built in,” she explained.

Assuming that the contested Providence Heights property will be demolished, Kuper said that the district was close to finding sites for all four of its planned new schools. The former nuns’ college is currently in the midst of a heated legal debate, as a group of hundreds of locals would like to see it preserved for historic value.