Bond. In most places, this term conjures up images of top secret missions, evil villains and martinis. On Lopez, the word has nothing to do with martinis. Unless you’ve been living under The Rock, you’ve heard something about the $9.6 million bond that was passed last year to renovate the Lopez Island School District. I attended this week’s Lopez School Board meeting to get an update on where things stand. After that meeting, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing top secret or evil about the bond and how the school plans to spend this money over the next two years.
I posted a detailed summary of the special Tuesday evening School Board meeting to the new Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) website. After the two-hour meeting, I was struck by a few things in particular:
- Projects like this are very complex. The collective team of PDAT (Project Design Advisory Team), TCF Architecture and The Robinson Company (a project management firm) appear to have done a very good job managing the bond project so far.
- The diversity of Lopez Island – one of our great assets – can sometimes work against us for these types of projects.
- There is room for broader community engagement in the school.
The term “consultant” tends to have negative connotations – especially when it comes to paying consultants with public funds to improve community assets like schools. There’s a tendency to not trust the intentions or knowledge of people from outside of the community. One of the first questions from community attendees during Tuesday’s board meeting came from Dwight Lewis, who wanted to know if the consultants are working for a fixed fee or if those fees could spiral out of control (their fee is fixed to the scope of work in the plan). He went on to ask what the consultants’ plan is for preventing rabbits from digging under the new sidewalks planned for the school’s perimeter (they were unaware of the problem, but are happy to take input on how to address it).
After the meeting, I put a call into Jennifer Everett, The Robinson Company’s project manager for the Lopez renovation. “It’s not every day you get to work with a community like Lopez … People are genuinely kind here,” she said, when I asked her for thoughts on the project so far. On the topic of community skepticism toward consultants, she told me: “That’s a normal part of the process … Everybody brings valuable input.” The team seems to have taken that to heart in the early phases of the bond project; they’ve used many local companies so far, including Hobi Plumbing, King Excavating and Parish Land Surveying, among others. That should continue in the construction phase, when it’s typical that 90% of the work is performed by local sub-contractors.
I was impressed by both TCF’s and The Robinson Company’s professionalism, thoroughness and commitment to this project. They came prepared and had clearly put a lot of time and thought into the abundance of renovation issues needing to be addressed at the school – from septic tanks to science labs. Beyond that, they came with recommendations on how to make tradeoffs that will inevitably be required as unforeseen issues and associated costs emerge. In the face of tough – sometimes off-topic – questions from the community, they remained professional throughout.
I learned during Tuesday’s meeting that Washington State provides matching funds for bond projects like these. For this bond, Lopez School will receive $1,635,538 in matching funds from WA State – bringing the overall budget to $11,235,538. What surprised me is that these matching funds are directly impacted by a community’s property values. According to School Board Chair, John Helding, if Lopez School were located in parts of Eastern Washington, it would be eligible for matching funds equal in amount to the $9.6 million bond – an especially interesting point when juxtaposed to the fact that 52% of Lopez School students receive subsidized lunches. For me, this highlights the important role that the Lopez community does and must play in helping the school and its students survive.
The Lopez community clearly has played a massively important role in Lopez School over the years. Programs like the L.I.F.E. Garden and Trail, the Lopez Island Education Foundation (L.I.E.F.) and the school’s tight relationship with the Family Resource Center, are just a few of the many examples of this. I was surprised, however, to see a relatively light turnout at Tuesday’s School Board meeting. There were only two rows for community member seating, and several chairs were empty.
This was my very first school board meeting, so I don’t have much direct experience to determine the effectiveness of these meetings; but I was impressed by how the special bond session was run. I do intend to attend these meetings moving forward, and I encourage others in the community – school parents and non-parents alike – to attend. These meetings are full of information about what’s happening at the school. The first agenda item is always for questions or input from community attendees. This week, the only two questions raised from the community attendees were related to the recently combined Lopez-Orcas football team.
There are, of course, other ways for the Lopez community to get involved with and stay informed about the school. One thing I’m particularly excited about is the re-energized PAC – the website (and other channels) for which will be used to engage the entire Lopez community in issues related to the school’s role on the island. Whether it’s about the renovation bond or not, there’s a big opportunity to bring the school and the broader Lopez community closer together.