“Sorry, we’re filled to maximum capacity.” These were the words I first heard upon approaching the Nov. 12 Issaquah City Council Chambers for a special meeting, in which members would debate rezoning the property for the building site of a new high school. If the immense frustration expressed by community members on social media was not a strong enough indication of the topic’s popularity, this denial of entry confirmed its status as a hot-button issue. As I stood in front of the municipal building, wearing my press pass, my pen and notebook clutched in each hand, I thought not to press the issue further. Instead, I lingered in front of the man refusing me access to the hearing, thinking not to ask who he was or emphasize the fact that I was reporting on it, and elected to watch the hearing on my laptop at home. For a moment, I considered abandoning the story. I reasoned that because I was not there, I could not gather enough substantial information and quotes from attendees. This thought did not stick with me for long, however. No one else was reporting on this event, despite its massive impact on the community. I had to do this story justice.
Demands for a new high school in Issaquah School District have been piling up for years, but were only recently acknowledged by city planning officials. In April of 2018, the school district hired a team of designers from Skanska & Bassetti Architects to map out what the facility would look like. This phase of planning took over a year to become finalized, as new ideas and concerns were tossed back and forth between the city council and the design team. Finally, the project was given a due date of Sept. 2022 and a budget of $120 million. Along with this, the city agreed upon 4200 228thAve SE, Issaquah, the former location of Providence Heights College, as the building site. This is where the topic began to generate some conflict, as the school would be near Providence Point, a local retirement community. Residents of Providence Point, including some who sit on the City of Issaquah’s Planning Commission, recently recommended that the City Council adopt zoning that prohibits the school district from building the planned high school, labeling it usable only for single family residence. On Nov. 12, the council met to hear arguments on the issue from community members on both sides. Those against building the new school cited traffic, construction noise, and a negative impact on property value as reasons to block construction. Those in favor of continuing with the agreed upon plan, which the district had already spent money on, emphasized student impact. Issaquah High School, originally built for around 1,850 students, currently enrolls 2,329, earning it a student:teacher ratio of 26:1. Attendees, including a student at Pacific Cascade Middle School, brought up research on the negative effects of overcrowding, claiming that schools with too many students produce lower quality education and drastically harm student-teacher relations. Teachers, when presented with massive numbers of students, struggle to form personal connections with their pupils, resulting in both parties feeling less motivated to pursue an education.
Despite the pleas of many parents of students in the district, the council signaled willingness to abruptly change their decision to allow the building of a new high school, essentially postponing it in favor of complaints from Providence Point residents. Many attendees expressed frustration that these arguments were being held in higher esteem than that of the students, signaling a clear generational divide in the issue. Notably, the council has not yet confirmed a position on the issue. They will hear an environmental impact report on Dec. 2, followed by a final decision on Dec. 16.
As I finish my research for this story, I cannot help but generate a significant amount of personal feelings on the matter. Firstly, I immensely regret not pushing for entry into the meeting. I feel it is an immense injustice to those living in Issaquah that no member of the press is reporting on this issue, despite the community caring so deeply and fighting so passionately for it. Since the meeting, the Issaquah High Times contacted the city of Issaquah to question the role journalists played in council meetings. Unfortunately, they claimed the city was “too small” to allow for a reserved press seat. Being denied entry to the meeting, however, only makes up a portion of my frustration. I also feel that the city council is acting quite recklessly on this issue. Calls for a new school have been in place since 2012. This is something the district has spent so much time and money on. To indefinitely postpone it would be uncalled for, and would signal that the council favors complaints of noise and traffic over quality education for their constituents’ children. That being said, the amount of civic engagement occurring as a result of this is incredibly encouraging to see. I have witnessed community members speak out and actually participate in their local government, and am truly appreciative of this. Governments, whether national or municipal, should work for the interests of the people, and it is our duty to uphold them to this ideal.
If you want to let the city council know your opinion on this issue, email them at [email protected]