The Yakima School District has finally completed its most ambitious school construction agenda in decades, giving the city two brand new high schools and the substantial renovation of a third.
At a cost of more than $200 million, the finished schools have generally been well received, and district officials say the new facilities should be roundly admired.
“There’s an awful lot of pride here,” Superintendent Jack Irion said in a recent interview. “When you take a look at the high schools, whether it be Stanton or Ike or Davis or Yakima online or YV Tech, the students who attend our high schools have quality facilities.”
But the six-year journey from the voter-approved $114 million bond in 2009 to the completion of the renovation and construction was marked by no small amount of public controversy. Potentially budget-busting cost overruns and controversies over what was promised versus delivered kept district officials on the defensive against criticism they say was misguided.
Why did the projects run over in cost? What happened to Davis’ performing arts center? How did Stanton Academy — the district’s alternative high school — get a brand-new building without significant funding from the bond?
Rare is the public construction project that doesn’t go through some tumult, only to be greeted warmly by the public once the dust has settled and the paint is dry. Yakima schools went through a particularly arduous process just to win voter approval for new facilities in the first place.
The district had long coveted major upgrades to its secondary schools. Three years before voters approved the 2009 bond, they had rejected a larger, $120 million bond. The next year, Yakima tried again and failed despite a smaller $66 million proposal. The last bond passed was in 1994.
Yakima attorney Paul Larson, the co-chair of the successful 2009 bond committee, said the failure of two previous bonds in as many years struck at the community’s self-esteem.
“It was not good for our community,” Larson said in a recent interview.
That both schools were outdated and dilapidated surprised no one. Davis opened in 1957, built around the original Yakima High School, which had opened in 1908. Davis was added onto or renovated four times in the intervening years. At the same time, the ornate old high school was pulled down.
Eisenhower opened in 1957. The only classroom additions came in 1986, and the mechanical and electrical systems were shot. “If you turned on two computers in Ike, the fuse would blow over,” Larson joked.
Larson’s wife, Kristy, also co-chaired the bond committee, and together they urged the district to push a spring rather than fall vote to avoid the risk of politicizing the question with any hotly contested races in the general election, he said. Seats for the Yakima City Council, for example, were on the general election ballot that year.
The Larsons said students — not adults — should be the “spokespeople” for the bond campaign because teens would most benefit from updated high schools. The campaigning teens would never reap the benefits of a new Davis or Eisenhower as they would graduate before completion, but they too wanted a brighter future for the students who followed them.
Larson remembered what the teens said when they volunteered: “We don’t want brothers and sisters and cousins and others to go through this.”
On the third attempt, the bond was approved by almost 70 percent of voters — despite the spendy price tag. As a result, the state provided $104 million in matching funds. A bond requires at least 60 percent approval from voters.
“With the two previous fails, the economy was beginning to show downhill trends,” said former Superintendent Ben Soria, who was serving at the time. “When we went for the (third attempt) ... was there doubt in my mind? Yes. For the community to approve them, I cannot speak enough about them.”
“They could have said no,” Soria added, “but they said a resounding yes.”
Davis and Eisenhower were not the only beneficiaries of the bond proceeds. Money also went to repay about $3.2 million in nonvoted debt the district had accrued. Major repairs, including replacing aging air conditioning, heating and ventilation systems, also were funded for Garfield, Hoover, McKinley and Nob Hill elementary schools, as well as Discovery Lab School and the old Stanton. Each school received between $500,000 and $2 million.
The bulk of the money, though, about $94 million, went to the two major high schools.
The most expensive project was Eisenhower, which was torn down and replaced with a brand-new building northwest of the former school. The total budget was difficult to estimate because the bids on construction — not including planning and design — came in $5 million more than district officials expected. They counted that additional cost in an early budget estimate of $106.6 million, which included state matching funds. That sum was tweaked and the final budget estimate was $108 million.
The campus project did go over that $108 million budget, but the final tab is not yet in.
“I honestly also don’t know (by how much), but I know we went over,” said Associate Superintendent Scott Izutsu.
Cost projections presented to the school board in 2013 indicated a worst-case scenario for the cost of a new Eisenhower would be a $112 million.
Izutsu said he wouldn’t have a definitive answer on the final costs until all work is completed this fall and the construction budgets are reconciled with expenditures.
One of the main reasons the district exceeded its budget was the development of the athletic fields — the non-Zaepfel Stadium facilities south of the school. While Zaepfel is on the campus, work on the lights, track and field never were a part of the high school construction project. Zaepfel is considered a district facility and not solely an Ike facility.
However, new baseball and softball diamonds, soccer and football practice fields and other fields and amenities were just for Eisenhower.
But an unanticipated problem came up: lead and arsenic in the soil. Like other public schools in the Yakima district, the land on which Eisenhower was built had been used for orchards, where, between the 1930s and 1950s, it was common to use lead arsenate pesticide to kill codling moths. Because lead and arsenic can cause health problems after long-term exposure, regulatory agencies require soil testing.
Samples taken in 2013 showed Eisenhower tested above normal arsenic levels in four of the five spots tested. One of the five tested above normal for lead. The original plan was to have the soil trucked off, but the cost was estimated at $1 million, which the district determined was too high.
“We were not anticipating to deal with those soils and those issues,” Izutsu said.
The district proceeded with a more affordable alternative — adding several inches of soil on top and covering and securing the contaminated areas. Diamonds, fields and tennis courts were built on the elevated site.
These athletic fields became Phase 3 of the Eisenhower project. The district received approval last year from the school board to finance this phase using general funds to be repaid with nonvoted debt.
The board’s approval of additional money to fund Phase 3 made it certain the total project would go beyond the $108 million budget by at least $7.3 million. The board approved $3.3 million for Phase 3A last October, another $3.3 million for Phase 3B in March, and $711,000 for Phase 3C the following month.
With Davis, district officials sought to avoid the mistake they concede was made with Eisenhower — not seeking new construction bids when the first ones came in $5 million over expectations.
So when the first bid for the Davis renovation put cost projections at least $7 million over budget, school officials rebid, leaving out a new performing arts center, a decision that would alienate performing arts students, parents and their supporters. The current auditorium dates to 1937. While the old arts wing would still get at least $1.8 million for improvements in the new design, a major upgrade was out.
In October 2012, the school board accepted a bid for the Davis project. The performing arts space would get necessary mechanical and electric work, new paint and flooring in some areas, LED stage lighting, a new sound system and a theater in the Kiva meeting space. Not included was new auditorium seating and improvements to make the facilities more handicap accessible.
Protests ensued. Students walked along Fifth Avenue with signs reading “Arts Building Falling Apart,” “Protest for the Arts” and “All We’re Saying is We Matter Too.”
Officials said the arts had to be scaled back in order to meet code requirements on classroom sizes, fire safety and handicap-accessible facilities.
But feelings are still sore today.
At a May school board meeting, Kaitlyn Wolterstorff, then a sophomore at Davis, spoke to board members.
“Davis students currently have an inadequate performing arts center,” she said. “There’s a lack of storage and practice rooms. ... Our practice rooms are full.”
Recently, Wolterstorff, 16, said students and staff have seen asbestos and mold; the tiered choir-band-orchestra rooms are difficult for injured or physically disabled students and band students store uniforms close to emergency exits because of the lack of storage.
Classmate Cole Leinbach, 16, transferred from La Salle High School to Davis because of the strong reputation of its performing arts program, which turns out award-winning students. Last school year, for example, two choir students were invited to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
“It’s just a little bit sad because Davis’ performing arts is constantly getting praised as being excellent,” Leinbach said.
The total Davis project cost about $97 million, but with overruns, the final cost is about $98 million.
To keep costs from running away, the district had to make other alterations, according to original and revised renderings. In the original, for example, a glass-enclosed skywalk connects two of the new buildings. In the revised rendering, the skywalk is no longer enclosed. The skywalks might get a minor makeover to protect students from inclement weather such as snow, Izutsu said, but nothing is confirmed yet.
District officials, meanwhile, said they will address the performing arts space deficiencies.
“Now that the high school projects are at or near completion, one of the next things we’ll talk about is what to do with the performing arts center at Davis,” board President Martha Rice said in a recent interview.
A substantial remodel of the performing arts wing’s interior would cost about $2 million, according to Davis theater teacher John Pleasants.
The best chance may come next year, when the district submits a replacement levy for a spring special election, said Pleasants. Unlike a bond, a levy only requires a simple majority to pass.
While the top priority of the levy would be to fund a sizable portion of the district’s general operating budget — practically every public school system in the state is heavily dependent on the passage of levies — the performing arts center could get some of the funding.
Renovating the arts wing would significantly enhance the arts-education experience for students, Pleasants said, because the arts teaches so much.
“They can overcome fears, they can boost their confidence, they learn responsibility.”