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Voters overwhelmingly passed our 2016 bond measure, providing a means and a mandate to add student capacity to the Issaquah School District, where schools are already overcrowded and we continue to anticipate extraordinary enrollment growth. Specifically, the bond funded two new elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school, and, as we have mentioned before, the most difficult part of constructing these facilities has not been construction-related at all—suitable land within our borders is scarce to the point of almost non-existence.
While each property acquisition has had its own unique gauntlet of legal challenges, the most urgent hold-up continues to be land for a new high school and elementary to serve students in the Issaquah-corridor and Sammamish Plateau areas. After an extensive search of more than 50 potential school sites, we identified the Providence Heights property off Southeast 43rd Way as our best option. It is particularly well-suited in terms of size, location, and access. We did not select Providence Heights because it would be easier, more convenient, or less problematic to develop than other sites. Rather, there are simply no other sites within the district’s corridor with enough developable acreage to accommodate a comprehensive high school.
Following the 2016 bond approval, we filed a Petition in Eminent Domain in King County Superior Court to acquire the property after we were unable to reach a purchase agreement with the owner. At that time, the property was under contract for the construction of a large subdivision with more than 130 new homes. Shortly after the district’s petition, a community group filed an application to designate Providence Heights as a historic landmark. As a result, our own petition has been stayed pending a resolution of the historic-landmark application.
The property owner and the community group are currently embroiled in the legal process. The Providence Heights campus was built in 1961 by the Sisters of Providence to give nuns the same education opportunities as priests, and the community group wants all facilities on the campus to be preserved. If that happens and demolition is prohibited, we will not be able to construct the schools we need. Due to constitutional and other legal restrictions on the presence of religious iconography in public schools, we would not be able to use the property for school purposes if the chapel building or other improvements with religious iconography remain on the property. Moreover, even if the religious iconography were not present, the property needs to be entirely reconfigured to construct all of the necessary facilities for the new schools. It would be cost-prohibitive and impractical for us to attempt to use even some portion of the existing facilities for just one school given the current configuration and building conditions.
So this is the current delay moving forward—the Providence Heights property remains by far our best option to construct urgently needed new schools, but our ability to do so is in the hands of the court. Please let us be clear: we place a high value on preservation, and we have been actively pursuing ways to save the most historically significant parts of the campus while allowing the property to be of greatest service to families in our community. Prior to the stay in the eminent domain proceeding, we reached out directly to the Sisters of Providence to discuss the return of the stained glass windows to them. The Sisters stated they were in active discussions with the property owner for the return of the windows and they looked forward to using the windows in their current facilities. We have and will continue to support this plan to return the windows to their original owners.
With such mitigating conversations and plans already underway, the most important operational lens for the Issaquah School District is our mission to provide the highest quality education to students. We have great urgency to build the new high school and elementary as expediently as possible. Our need for new-school capacity mounts each day. Our enrollment has grown by more than 2,300 students in the past five years and is projected to grow by an additional 1,500 to 2,000 students in the next five years. More than 4,000 district students are currently housed in portable facilities.
If a historic designation eventually prohibits demolition on the Providence Heights property, we will have to return to our extensive real-estate search, and—as we have already determined—it’s almost certain that the next piece of land we identify will require starting a new, lengthy round of legal/civic negotiations (such as acquiring multiple parcels through eminent domain).
With the support of our community, we are working hard to build new schools and school additions at all grade levels under our current bond program to best serve students. We know our community wants and needs new schools. We remain hopeful that the Providence Heights property can be used for this important purpose.
If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact the Capital Projects team at (425) 837-7040.