School board OKs leasing 2.2 acres to provide affordable housing for district students, families

Edmonds School Board Directors meet via Zoom Tuesday night.

The Edmonds School Board of Directors, at its Dec. 14 business meeting, unanimously approved a resolution to declare approximately 2.2 acres of property adjacent to Cedar Valley Community School as surplus and then lease it to Housing Hope, which will develop affordable housing on the site.

In surplussing the property commonly known as the Cedar Valley Ballfield, which is located at approximately 19200 56th Ave. W. in Lynnwood, the board determined that the land is not currently needed or required for school purposes. The district will lease it to Housing Hope, an Everett-based nonprofit organization, at a rate of $1 per year for 75 years to provide affordable housing for students and families experiencing homelessness – with priority going to district families.

Housing Hope, in partnership with the Housing Authority of Snohomish County (HASCO), plans to develop a 40- to-50-unit affordable housing complex on the district-owned baseball field along 58th Avenue West. The district had to surplus the property in order to enter into the lease and it also obtained a “boundary lot adjustment” from the City of Lynnwood which separates those acres from the rest of the Cedar Valley school site.

A public hearing on the matter was previously held at the board’s Nov. 23 business meeting.

Superintendent Gustavo Balderas said approximately 350 students in the district are experiencing homelessness, although he added that number is quite possibly higher and staff has been working hard to identify those affected.

During the public hearing, it was also noted that ensuring students have housing would cost the district less than paying for much of the support it now provides students experiencing homelessness, including transportation to and from school. (Under federal law, school districts are required to support students experiencing homelessness. For example, if a student moves to another school district due to a housing instability, they are able to continue attending school in the Edmonds School District, which must provide transportation to and from school.)

Dr. Balderas said he wanted to clarify Tuesday that the board had engaged in several conversations about the project, which “is in collaboration with the City of Lynnwood and also Housing Hope to house our most needy students and their families.”

“We have a lot of impacted populations in that (Cedar Valley) region,” he added. “So making sure that people are aware of who is being serviced, these are our Edmonds School District students and families and also at a very minimal cost because of costs that are being borne through Housing Hope.”

Fred Safstrom, CEO of Housing Hope, thanked the school board, before its vote, and district staff for their “excellent and diligent work in negotiating a lease agreement that both well serves the district and makes this housing development possible – this is an absolutely wonderful collaboration.”

“The purpose for this surplus property determination and lease agreement is not simply to provide housing for homeless students and their families in your district, but it is primarily to improve your students’ academic performance,” he added. “The student outcomes for stably-housed students versus not in your district are that attendance falls from 86% to 55%, English language proficiency falls from 65% to 36%, mathematics proficiency falls from 54% to just 25%, and the four-year graduation rate falls from 79% to 52%.”

Safstrom said it “just makes common sense,” there are such drop-offs and pondered, “how much more difficult is it for a student to achieve in school when they do not have a stable place to live?” He noted, “The project we are planning is designed to improve these results for the families we serve. We will be providing extensive social services support for our residents, all designed to help improve student outcomes.”

Two additional speakers provided supportive input about the project in public comments, although one also implored the district to utilize written measures in order to ensure that its students and families are housed at the facility.

During a status update on the school year, Assistant Superintendent Dana Geaslen said the district has been working with the Snohomish Health District to prepare for the omicron variant of COVID-19 and that vaccines, masking and testing for infection remain the best tools for mitigation. Four onsite vaccination clinics for children ages 5-11 had recently been completed, and administered a total of 3,400 vaccine doses. The district is also working on holding four mobile vaccination clinics at area schools in January.

Assistant Superintendent Dana Geaslen briefs the board about district vaccination efforts.

Furthermore, the district has established a centralized COVID-19 response team, located at Edmonds Woodway High School, that includes a nurse and three health screening staff. It provides a variety of resources including a site for consolidated PCR drive-thru testing, a community call center, general information for staff, and response support to district buildings by offering contact tracing and investigation.

Since Dec. 8, the site has tested an average of 26 people a day, taken more than 80 calls daily from staff and the community, and supported 46 positive COVID-19 cases.

During the meeting’s public comments, one parent and two students each said they felt that the district’s COVID-19 policies regarding unvaccinated students are unfair. They identified the longer periods of isolation after a possible exposure to the virus has been identified and also more frequent testing for those student-athletes as problematic to both their quality of education and social well-being among peers. It was also suggested that the district should pursue a “test-to-stay” policy for attending school after a close contact with the virus has been identified.

Director Nancy Katims said later she felt it’s important to ensure that students, regardless of their vaccination status, have equitable access to “a free and appropriate education like they should be getting every day. And it sounds like that’s not happening.” She added the district should examine its strategies along with those implemented by others as a learning tool “to not be lost in the conversation or for us to take it for granted that what we’re doing is the best that can be done because it doesn’t sound like it’s the best that can be done.”

Katims concluded, “I hope that staff will start looking at models or ways that we could change the current situation. Because while we hope that all of the variants will diminish, we have every single day, and we shouldn’t have kids sitting at home who don’t need to be or could be somehow accessing educational opportunities more equitably.”

Balderas noted that staff had been actively “working on a variety of options,” adding that “learning loss, in terms of what’s happening to our kiddos, we’ll continue to look at what we can do – what’s doable. I think part of the issue we’re currently having is the staffing situation is getting better, but it’s not there where we need to be.”

He added that staff is spread thin which also impacts work-loads and “that’s one of the things causing some disruption in terms of our goals and how we can really move things forward. And that’s not an excuse that’s just the reality we’re living in right now.”

Balderas said he’s anticipating staff will be able to provide the board with an update in the new year about what it would take to have the ability to implement a test-to-stay program or other ways to possibly “do things differently. We can add that to the agenda, we can work on it over our winter break,” he added, and then “we’ll come back to the board with some solutions on what we think we can do to improve our current system.”

Geaslen noted that test-to-stay programs require testing “about every other day” for people who have been identified as being exposed to the virus. “And right now the challenge is the staffing to pull that off and having the health screeners available every day,” plus the sheer number of tests and contact tracing efforts required daily under such a program. In addition, some high-contact sports still demand an antigen test and place stricter conditions on student participation that would have to be adhered to.

The board also discussed the possibility of a return to holding its meetings in person. Dr. Balderas said more specific details will be provided during the board’s Jan. 11, 2022 meeting, but he anticipated that return could happen, albeit with masking and distancing requirements, by the end of January. Plus, methods for online participation and/or viewing options will remain in place even after meetings are once again held in person.

In other business, the school board approved a budget authorization of $400,000 to purchase one relocatable classroom. The structure will be used starting with the 2022-2023 school year to meet additional capacity needs moving forward. Relocatable classrooms were among the district’s needs identified in the 2020 Capital Levy that was approved by voters.

It also approved a nearly $2.2 million purchase of Chromebooks for students. Doing so will provide a new device for all of the 2022-23 school year’s 1st grade, 5th grade and 9th grade students. Each student will be assigned and then retain those devices for the following four school years.

A separate purchase of laptops for teachers to support the replacement of old devices was also approved Tuesday night. The district’s replacement plan provides for each certificated staff member to receive a new computer every four school years. The cost of the purchase is slightly more than $3.2 million.

Finally, the board’s members thanked Director Ann McMurray, whose didn’t run for re-election, for her long-time service to the school district that includes serving on its board of directors for the past 17 years. They noted she will be missed and wished McMurray well in her future endeavors.

“I would just like to end with a plea for members of the community to really be involved in what’s going on with our schools, but from a solution-based participation,” McMurray said. “I know that it’s very easy to be negative and to criticize and to find everything wrong, but over the 30-plus years that I’m involved in the district, I’ve found that the most effective way to be part of this community is to actively, intentionally be part of solutions. And to be positive, to assume the best intentions, the best motives, the best actions of the people that you work with because ultimately our goal is the betterment of our kids.”

She noted that doing so requires adults to work together in order to find solutions and reach a consensus. “We need well-intentioned people to agree to be in leadership positions in positive and civil ways that actually move us all forward,” McMurray added.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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