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2016 Bond Projects Come to Fruition: Cougar Mountain Middle School Opens, High School 4 On the Horizon

2016 Bond Projects Come to Fruition: Cougar Mountain Middle School Opens, High School 4 On the Horizon

On a day eagerly anticipated by students, staff and families alike, the beautiful new Cougar Mountain Middle School opened on March 1. For the first time, the student body of about 640 Falcons arrived at the campus in the Talus neighborhood. 

Cougar Mountain is the third new school to open, thanks to the 2016 bond measure. Major projects funded by the bond that are complete or nearly complete include: 

One project, the construction of a fourth comprehensive high school, has been significantly delayed due to changes in city permitting regarding parking and road requirements as well as pandemic-related challenges. Enrollment at the high school level still demonstrates a need for the fourth high school, in order to help reduce the number of students at other high schools in the district, and also to increase student access to classes, services, programs and activities. 

While those delays have resulted in increased costs due to inflation, they have also offered the district the opportunity to refine plans, including increasing the green space/buffer zone at the perimeter of the property. The new high school will eventually share a site with the district’s 17th elementary school, although that project is temporarily on hold. 

Cougar Mountain Middle School

At Cougar Mountain on opening day, sixth-grader Eva O. said “I’m feeling really excited!” as she helped greet fellow students. Eva and sixth-grader Aditya P. took turns holding a directional sign for their peers, and stood ready to answer questions.  

“Excited” was the emotion that most students and staff shared when asked what they were feeling. 

As buses and families dropped students off at the new building, the middle schoolers made their way to the commons. “Good morning and welcome to our brand-new school!” teacher Holly Stipe called out on the microphone. Any student who needed a fresh copy of their schedule picked one up, and then the school was dismissed by grade level to their first class.  

Small touches throughout the building helped welcome students and staff, from blue and gold paper birds flocking the halls, to flowers in the office and the library, to a large banner that the neighboring community of Timber Ridge provided welcoming students and staff. At the door to one classroom, the words on a small rug read “Yay! You’re here!” 

These gestures are just one part of a larger plan to help create a sense of community and invite students to feel at home in their new building. Construction delays made it necessary for the school to begin its year in a borrowed building on the Ringdall Junior High campus in Newport Hills. 

“I am thrilled for our students, staff and families that we are now in our new beautiful building! I’m excited to fully use our amazing and unique spaces and resources to support student learning, creativity and community,” Principal Erin McKee said, noting that she can’t wait for families and community members to have a chance to see the campus in person in late spring.    

Cougar Mountain parent Rachel Auffant said her eighth-grade son is lucky to finish his middle school years in the new building. “He has had a wonderful year, all things considered. The staff has worked hard to build community between students in the temporary location, and truly made the best out of a school year that did not start as planned, all while coming back from remote learning and still providing top quality education,” Auffant said. “Staff and students demonstrated resilience, flexibility, and patience moving into two buildings this year, building new relationships, and managing a seamless transition mid-year.”  

After spending the first day getting to know their new building – from the fifth-floor library with dramatic views of the treetops, to the counseling center, the nurse’s office and the sport court – students also had the chance to learn about the neighborhood that their new school is a part of, and neighbors such as the Timber Ridge at Talus community. Some students made cards for residents of the Timber Ridge senior community. Staff and students are developing a special relationship with the Timber Ridge residents, who delivered a welcome banner to the school before opening day. 

“We want kids to want to be here,” McKee said. “We’ve done a lot of work to make students feel welcome.” 

High School 4

The district has a history of green initiatives, efforts and projects, and building a new school tucked into the forest on the plateau will be a wonderful way to continue that story of sustainability. Those pieces range from the work that student Green Teams do, to partnering with Puget Sound Energy on a solar power project at Pine Lake Middle School to installing a charging station for electric vehicles to reviewing districtwide data to increase efficiency in use of electricity, gas, water solid waste, recycling, fuel and stormwater. In March of 2021, the district moved to purchasing 100 percent green electricity through a PSE program called Green Direct for wind and solar power. The ISD is also applying for a grant that could award the district between one and three electric school buses. 

“Our future schools, High School #4 and Elementary #17, are sites that take advantage of the natural beauty of our region,” Superintendent Ron Thiele said. “I am impressed with the design team, architects and engineers in creating a parklike setting for these school sites that exceeds environmental standards through enhanced stormwater treatment in underground vaults and filters, through the use of a green retaining wall by compacting the improvements toward the center of the property to create larger buffers around the perimeter of the site, and by increasing the number of trees and amount of vegetation in our landscaping.” 

The process to build the district’s fourth comprehensive high school began years before the 2016 bond, with the search for potential building locations, and a site had still not been selected by the time the measure went before voters. The search for school sites has been complicated in the past decade by several primary factors. In 2012, King County officials determined that new school construction must occur within its Urban Growth Boundary (only about 30 percent of the district’s 110 square miles sits within that boundary). Eventually, the district purchased land along 228th Avenue Southeast, where Providence Heights College and City Church had been located.  

When the bond package was planned, the high school project was estimated at $120 million. Inflation due to delays, changes to permitting, code requirements and pandemic-related costs such as increased material prices and labor issues during the time since the bond package was planned have increased the cost of the fourth high school to $198 million. In the 2016 bond package, $34 million was originally earmarked for the 17th elementary school, and delaying that project allows the district to shift some funds to help cover the increased costs of the new high school, leaving a remaining need of about $44 million. That amount is included in Prop. 2, the Renewal Capital (Technology and Construction) Levy proposed on the April 26 ballot. 

The design team for the new high school reduced the building’s footprint on the site, creating a three-story structure in the center of the property. It’s also optimally positioned on the site in order to give classrooms the best natural light possible. The multi-purpose turf playfield and grandstand will also be close to the center of the site and oriented toward 228th, rather than toward neighboring residential properties. The stormwater system will include some of the best mitigation measures available; the stormwater will be retained and slowly released under controlled conditions, to help the flow match what it was before development. “The stormwater will leave our site as close to natural as possible,” said Kristian Kicinski, director of sustainability with Bassetti Architects.   

The greenspace, or buffers, at the edges of the site will be about 60 feet deep rather than the required 10-15 feet, and will heavily favor native species of plants and trees. The design team also plans to incorporate as much of the site-harvested wood into the design as possible, in elements such as paneling, siding, trim and features like benches. 

In another element of sustainable practices, the design team and Skanska examine the project’s embodied carbon, from all the materials including wood, steel, concrete and more, and use a web-based tool to tally total embodied carbon. “The goal is to achieve a significant carbon reduction,” Kicinski said. When the project goes to bid, Skanska will consider those factors along with others when selecting materials such as steel. Lastly, the project will be built with energy-efficient mechanical systems for heat recovery and delivery of fresh, outside air. 

If the Capital Levy is approved, district officials plan to break ground on the high school in 2022.