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Seattle School Board Rejects Downtown School, But Supporters Cling To Hope

Kyle Stokes
A door to the lobby of the former Federal Reserve Bank branch in downtown Seattle.

Seattle Public Schools leaders have dropped a bid for a property that could've been the site of the district's first downtown elementary school in more than six decades.

School board members balked at the estimated $53 million cost of renovating the vacant Federal Reserve Bank building, noting the district would have to take on debt it might have trouble paying back.

In voting 5 to 0 to drop its application, the board passed up a golden opportunity for effectively free land in a pricey real estate market, the school's supporters say; the U.S. Department of Education could have deeded the property to the district for practically nothing.

However, it's conceivable the district could still acquire the building, which has been vacant since the Federal Reserve left for Renton in 2008. The bank building will now likely go up for public auction, and downtown advocates hope district officials submit a bid.

'We Don't Have $53 Million To Commit'

Based on tax assessments of other nearby properties, the land for the Federal Reserve property alone is likely worth $20 million. But supporters of a downtown school point out Seattle Public Schools could acquire it with fewer strings attached at auction; the district wouldn’t be beholden to the feds’ timelines for renovating the building or restrictions on the building’s future use.

“I’d like to invite the federal government to reconsider their offer and truly give us this building free with no caveats, no restrictions. If that were the case, I would gladly vote in favor of this,” said board president Sharon Peaslee. "However, as my colleagues have pointed out, we don’t have $53 million to commit to turning this building into a school within three years.”

Peaslee’s remarks, echoed by other board members who expressed hopes the district gets involved in the auction process, encouraged Jon Scholes, the vice president for advocacy at the Downtown Seattle Association.

“I think they recognized the unique opportunity of this location. It’s close to transit and the library and Benaroya Hall,” Scholes said. "I think the uniqueness of this opportunity is not lost on [board members]."

'Is This The Right Choice For Us At This Point?'

For a decade, downtown interest groups say they've sought an elementary school to accommodate growing numbers of parents with children deciding to locate in the area. More than 430 students live within a mile of the proposed site, but they currently bus to schools in other neighborhoods.

Michael George lives just blocks from the proposed site in Pioneer Square with his wife and 2-year-old child. Without its own neighborhood school, he say, many parents opt to leave downtown.

"A lot of people come down on downtown. They say, 'Oh, it's a bunch of rich people.' But really, it's not," George said after last month's meeting. "It is, in a lot of cases, a lot more affordable for a family like mine to live downtown in a two-bedroom condo or apartment than it is to struggle to find a house in a lot of these other areas.”

Though Wednesday's vote was unanimous, board members acknowledged the validity of downtown school supporters’ arguments.

“The idea of having a downtown school makes perfect sense,” said board member Sue Peters. "The question is, though: Is this the right choice for us at this point?"

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.