The conflict between the District and Mini Einstein’s Learning Center played out Tuesday during the School Board of Directors meeting and when it was over, neither of the parties nor any of the Board Members seemed especially pleased with the options laid out before them.
Mini Einstein’s Learning Center has operated out of Woodway Elementary School for the last two years. Mini Einstein previously was known as Cornerstone Early Learning Center and was based out of the District’s Melody Hills building in Mountlake Terrace. Husband and wife William and Samantha Sciacca purchased the business two years ago.
Mini Einstein has been operating under a year-to-year lease and the current lease is scheduled to end in August. During a meeting last summer with District officials, Samantha Sciacca said she was told that the District would allow Mini Einstein to stay through June 2016. The issue also was discussed during a Board meeting and Director April Nowak said she remembered the Board talked about allowing the tenants to stay through June 2016.
But because of the changing business environment, the District now wants to move up the timetable for the construction of Lynndale Elementary and would do so by triggering a recapture clause in the contract with Mini Einstein. This clause says that the District, without cause, may terminate the lease without penalty on 120 days’ notice to a tenant, if the premises are needed for school purposes.
The District’s plan is to move Lynndale Elementary students into Woodway Elementary in September and to start the demolition of Lynndale Elementary at that time.
What that means for Mini Einstein is that the business would need to leave Woodway Elementary in June 2015, a year earlier than expected. Samantha Sciacca said she learned of the District’s plans less than two weeks ago.
In speaking to the Board, William Sciacca said that the District’s current timetable would “almost ensure the death of my company. You’ve asked us to find a new building within four months and we were originally told that we had a year and a half.”
Finding a new facility, getting licensed and doing any potential renovations to a new building in four months is going to be a problem, according to William Sciacca.
“Given the short notice, it’s almost impossible,” he said.
Mini Einstein Center serves about 100 children and families and employs 20 staff members. Most of the students end up in the Edmonds School District, the Sciaccas said. Mini Einstein accepts children from infants to 5-year-olds. The Center’s focus is on teaching children basic and advanced skills to prepare them for primary school.
Both Willliam and Samantha Sciacca urged the Board to stick to the original agreement, which would allow the Center to remain at Woodway Elementary through June 2016. But even allowing Mini Einstein to stay through September, instead of June, would make a major difference, Samantha Sciacca said.
The District’s motivation for moving up the construction timetable for Lynndale Elementary is mostly financial. The budget for the construction of the school is very tight, according to Stewart Mhyre, District Executive Director of Business and Operations.
Mhyre noted that there are a lot of new construction projects and specifically a lot of new school construction projects in the region. Construction costs are rising at a 6 percent rate. A representative from the contractor for the project said that material costs, such as lumber and concrete, also are increasing.
As a result, if the District sticks to the original schedule, then Mhyre said it will need to cut $600,000 out of the project from where it currently stands. This cut would translate to two classrooms, which would mean that two portables would have to be brought in.
By moving up the timetable, the District will be able to avoid the inflation cost increases that are being generated by the new construction in the region.
Another factor in moving up the timetable is the poor condition of the roof. Every month the roof is leaking and has to be repaired during the day. The work often results in disruptions for students and teachers, said Lynndale Principal Chris Fulford.
“It’s getting harder and harder,” he said.
The staff even lost some teaching material to water damage, Fulford added.
Board Member Gary Noble seemed conflicted, making note of the significant amount of savings and having to balance the legal right to do something versus the moral responsibility.
“Four months’ notice is pretty rotten,” he said.
Board Member Ann McMurray, however, made the point that the Board is legally prohibited from using public funds to benefit a private business. The District has informed the Board of the potential savings by moving up the construction timetable.
“My fiduciary responsibility is not to a private business but to the District as a whole and to the taxpayers and the students,” McMurray said.
Superintendent Nick Brossoit acknowledged that the Board has a tough decision to make.
“The facts have changed,” he said. “The information has changed and it is very unfortunate because it puts some very good people, who are here tonight, in a very hard spot and nobody likes to do that.”
The issue of whether the Board made some sort of oral agreement with Mini Einstein was raised by Board Members. After consulting with legal counsel on Wednesday, Mhyre indicated that the District’s position is that the recapture clause would supersede any oral agreement.
Samantha Sciacca said that she was under the impression that the recapture clause applied to an emergency type of situation, such as a building being destroyed by a fire, rather than a preplanned move.
The comments by the Board was both encouraging and discouraging to Samantha Sciacca.
“It kind of went both ways,” she said. “I’m encouraged to see some of the School Board Members actually felt for us and felt our trials that we’re going through and what they’re putting us through with the timeline change.”
But she noted that the issue is complicated, especially regarding the use of school funds.
“I do understand that the School District has to run their District according to their laws,” she said.
Samantha Sciacca also appreciated what District has done for Mini Einstein the last two years.
“We do love the Edmonds School District,” she said. “We can’t be mad at what they’ve offered us the past few years. They’ve truly taken care of us. … I see both sides of it.”
As for the future, Samantha Sciacca is still hopeful.
“We’re doing our best to find a new location,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult. I’m telling all my teachers that ‘you’ll have a job.’ I’m going to give it my all to keep our families and staff together.”
The Board likely will make a decision on the timetable for Lynnwood Elementary School at its next business meeting on Feb. 10.
– By David Pan
Updated at 11:31 a.m.