After 20-plus years of educating children, Bellevue-based Three Cedars Waldorf School will say goodbye for good to its last class of students as they head off for summer break this June.
In its place will emerge a new private school – the Eastside Community School. While its name and leadership will be different, the school will have similar attributes of the highly esteemed Waldorf way of teaching, it will have some of the same teachers from Three Cedars and will be on the same 4.75-acre property, for now.
So, why the reset? Members of the Three Cedars community have been asking that question, and more, since they learned of the shutter last summer.
“When that announcement went out, everyone went ‘Whoa, let’s back up. What’s going on?’” Chris Spurgin, a father of a Three Cedars student and husband of a Three Cedars teacher, said. “There were no special messages sent out previously saying ‘Oh, this year’s not looking good, we better get going. We gotta fundraise, otherwise you’re not going to make it.’ Zero of that.”
When Spurgin heard the news, his immediate thought was where would he send his son and where would his wife work?
Parents and faculty were told they had the 2017-18 school year to transition.
While Spurgin and others felt shock from the news, Tracy Bennett, the head of Seattle Waldorf School said there were signs of Three Cedars’ financial difficulty.
Three Cedars’ finances
In August 2015, the Three Cedars Waldorf school board approached Seattle Waldorf and informed them of their “financial crisis” Bennett said.
Three Cedars had lost a benefactor, a parent of a student who attended the school, who regularly “balanced the books,” while his children attended the school, “to the tune of half a million a year,” according to an anonymous statement from the benefactor that Seattle Waldorf School provided.
A yearly deficit of between $300,000 to $500,000 and poor institutional leadership had caused the Three Cedars board to seek guidance and support from Seattle Waldorf so that the school wouldn’t close mid-way through. And they needed answers fast, as the new school year was approaching.
“The need to bring some confidence and a plan forward to that school didn’t allow the luxury of a long period of due diligence, and the bottom line was it’s a Waldorf school,” Bennett said. “And Seattle Waldorf School, as the largest Waldorf school in the Pacific Northwest, wanted to support, in whatever way we could, the school on the Eastside.”
The two merged under Seattle Waldorf’s leadership in the fall/winter of 2015. The Seattle school took on Three Cedars’ contracts, assets and liabilities.
In the years that followed, Three Cedars revamped their admissions, marketing, governance and got new leadership with the help of Seattle Waldorf. They also combined their business office and billing, some of the more expensive back-end operations. The school still struggled, however.
“I think the difference in the landscape of education between Seattle and the Eastside is significant,” Bennett said. “I don’t know that we could have understood that as well as we might have liked and … every school has its unique culture within parents, students and faculty. So, on paper, bringing together two like-minded and mission-driven organizations might appear easier than it is.”
A letter written to parents by Seattle Waldorf School Board of Trustees late-Chair Sharlyn Turner, said that despite the amount of time invested in the merger, “it became clear through first-hand experience running the Three Cedars campus, that the independent school landscape on the Eastside differs greatly from Seattle.”
Turner mentioned the Eastside’s strong public schools attract 90 percent of families, which is a more transient population.
“These factors contribute to a limited interest in Waldorf education, the impact of which is compounded by the annual attrition rate at Three Cedars, which remained consistently at 20 percent or more,” Turner wrote.
At the same time as the 2015 merger, Bennett said a committee was developed to look at the viability of Three Cedars. They analyzed everything from the grades taught (K-8) to the school’s location.
“The rooms were very small, there’s no real central gathering area, office space is very limited,” Bennett said. “So, the spaces that really support building a sense of community and support growing enrollment were not available on that campus.”
These thoughts, which originated with the Three Cedars’ board prior to the merger, had always been on the table, Bennett said.
“So, I think following the first year-plus of our operating that campus, as we gained a much greater understanding of these challenges that had faced the school for quite a while, it became very clear that continuing as we were was not an option,” Bennett said. “That it would really put the Seattle Waldorf School’s financial viability at risk.”
At the end of May 2017, Bennett said a potential purchaser approached Seattle Waldorf School with an unsolicited bid despite the property not being up for sale.
“We had been looking, as the previous board as well, at are there other options to relocate the school elsewhere that would provide a campus that would better support a Waldorf school program, but we hadn’t by any means signaled any intentions to sell the property,” Bennett said.
The potential purchaser was George Qiao with Mercer Island-based Mountainview Estate Investment LLC and his intent, according to Seattle Waldorf, was to lease the land back to International Friends School, a private, Quaker school, looking to expand to the Eastside.
The Reporter attempted to contact Qiao but was unsuccessful.
Then, a second, similar offer came in.
“This came from a developer and was nearly identical in terms,” Turner wrote in a November email. “As a result, the purchaser, George Qiao, increased his offer by $250,000 to the final sale price of $7.75 million.”
But before taking a pause to let the community know of the bids or put the property on the open market, Seattle Waldorf signed Qiao’s offer June 10, 2017 and it closed sometime in early August.
Seattle Waldorf broke the news to parents June 12, 2017.
Parents, such as Spurgin, were surprised of the abrupt nature Seattle Waldorf had announced the Three Cedars closure. However, in meetings that followed, some started looking into what it would take to create a new school.
As Spurgin watched from the sidelines, he began to wonder why some of those funds shouldn’t go toward the new school everyone was talking about.
But then Spurgin began to have more questions.
In October, Spurgin sent the Seattle Waldorf School a series of questions: Why hadn’t the Three Cedars property been put on the open market? Why had Turner initially said the board was approached by International Friends School to discuss purchase of the property when it was an investment company that purchased it? And why wouldn’t Seattle Waldorf give proceeds from the sale to a new school initiative?
By November, Spurgin said he didn’t have sufficient answers to his questions and he made an online petition demanding answers. Approximately 340 in the community have signed the petition as of March. The lack of direct answers to his questions caused him to think there was something more going on.
“I said I’m going to go out there with my banjo singing Pete Seeger songs,” Spurgin said, laughing as he referenced the American folk singer and social activist who is known for popularizing the song “We Shall Overcome.” “I haven’t done that yet.”
Spurgin said he doesn’t necessarily disagree with the choice to sell the property, but thinks that by not putting the property on the open market or telling the community of its struggles, the Seattle Waldorf School robbed the Three Cedars community of the opportunity to raise money to save it or for someone to purchase the land for a greater amount.
Seattle Waldorf responds
Bennett said she thinks there is a difference of opinion and practice in how the Seattle Waldorf School board approaches decision making and its role as fiduciary stewards of the school.
Although the board had communicated the challenges they were facing with Three Cedars, for them to “go out to the community and essentially yell ‘fire’ is not how the Seattle Waldorf School governs,” she said.
“We had great concerns, as did the Three Cedars board at the time of the merger, about the potential significant lack of confidence and perhaps the panic that could ensue within the community if indeed this call were made for ‘what should we do?” she added. “That isn’t responsible governance.”
Also, the board was, again, under time constraints, which occur with purchase and sale agreements.
“Like the merger it was another decision that we didn’t necessarily have the liberty of as much time as we’d like,” she said of the unsolicited bid for the property. “That being said, it did crystallize the board’s thinking and understanding around the need to take action. The current situation of bleeding cash, of enrollment continuing to decline, wasn’t sustainable.”
What was attractive about Qiao’s offer was that the Three Cedars school would get to stay open one more year and allow families and faculty time to transition, and putting the property on the open market didn’t guarantee that transition. Also, the leasee was another school.
“I think it was important or it meant something to the Seattle Waldorf School board that it was another school that was going to occupy the campus and property,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t a developer. It wasn’t a set of office buildings, that there would be yet an opportunity for a school and families and children to be part of that 5 acres and that was important. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
The choice to not invest in the new Eastside Community School was made because it is not within the Seattle Waldorf School’s “fiduciary responsibility” to invest in other projects outside of the school.
“There are many fledgling and pioneering Waldorf schools in the region. While the primary responsibility of Seattle Waldorf School is to Seattle Waldorf School,” Bennett said in an email, “we do our best to support the Waldorf movement locally and nationally in many ways. The intention of the school is to invest the sale proceeds, which is what we have done including investing a portion in the Rudolf Steiner Social Investment Fund at RSF Social Finance, who makes loans to Waldorf schools across the country.”
Approximately $500,000 was invested to the foundation, which provides loans and grants to Waldorf schools. The rest is “simply invested and there is no intention to spend the proceeds.”
Eastside Community School
A phoenix is rising from the ashes that will be Three Cedars come summer.
Griffith Owen, the Eastside Community School’s board of directors president, said parents at first were concerned with where they would send the approximate 150 students of Three Cedars. Then, they realized they could launch a new school themselves.
Eventually, that group turned into a full-fledged planning committee with a board, a president and several tasks broken up in an organized structure. Then, teachers from Three Cedars realized they were serious and joined the team.
“As it went along, different people took up different pieces of the puzzle,” Owen said, noting that it was similar to starting a business – a skill he had from starting his company 20 years ago.
And with Three Cedars Waldorf teachers committing to teaching at Eastside Community School, Owen said the curriculum is Waldorf-inspired. They also pooled their frequent flyer miles together to bring a Kansas resident who’s started a Waldorf school help those who are interested in Waldorf’s governance model.
To fund the school, they’ve launched an extensive fundraising campaign with the goal of securing $500,000.
That money will go towards the $200,000 year lease of the Three Cedars land, in which International Friends School will share with Eastside Community School for the first year or two. The funds will also build up the school’s scholarship and financial aid program.
And, there may be a new funding model on the horizon.
“There’s a group of people looking at us becoming a charter school,” Owen said, adding that they’re not running a parallel path but exploring it for Eastside Community School. That’s one option down the road.”
But to meet their future goals, the Eastside Community School will need to move from the property to a larger building as they enroll more students. They’re not sure where that location would be but know they want it to be on the Eastside, whether that’s Bellevue, Redmond or another city.
“Eastside Community School and Waldorf education is almost inextricably rooted in children interacting with nature, so most Waldorf schools have a campus with a couple acres of wildness in the back,” Owen said of the criteria for a new property. “Our children spent a huge amount of time roaming in that forest. It’s part of the curriculum.”
That curriculum and way of teaching is why so many parents have dedicated their time and money to creating the Eastside Community School, Owen said.
To learn more about Eastside Community School or to donate toward their fundraiser, visit threecedarswaldorf.org.