Hanford layoffs: School growth slows, but so does cash flow

By Jacques Von Lunen, Herald staff writerOctober 21, 2011 

While nobody is happy about some 3,000 people losing their jobs at Hanford, the layoffs have an upside for Tri-City school districts -- a possible slowdown of the runaway population growth the area has experienced for years.

Unlike other public agencies, which provide services to residents through pipes, over the phone or in brief personal encounters, schools have to house their clients for hours on end. And that gets to be a problem if enrollment rapidly increases year after year.

But this year, that rapid growth showed signs of slowing in most districts.

The Kennewick School District had been growing by nearly 300 students each year, said Superintendent Dave Bond. The year-old Cottonwood Elementary in Badger Canyon, for example, already ran out of room and needed a portable classroom this year.

But the district's facility staff may get to catch its breath now -- enrollment this year was below projections. Anticipating fewer kids, in part because of Hanford layoffs, district officials had projected an increase of 140 kids for budgeting purposes.

"We ended up getting 80," Bond said. "We've already decided to project no growth for next year."

That means class sizes stay manageable and the district won't have to think about building new schools again right away.

"If we have no growth, we can make do with existing space," Bond said.

But no growth also means stagnant property values -- which drive up levy rates and in turn makes it harder to pass a levy -- and declining revenue from the state. Coming up 60 students short means getting about $300,000 less from the state than planned.

Although the Richland School District is closest to Hanford, it has seen higher enrollment growth than Kennewick this year.

The district grew by 235 students this school year, said Superintendent Jim Busey. It had projected 70 additional kids.

But that growth rate still is about 100 below last year's figure. This means that Richland won't be running out of room in its schools quite as quickly as it feared at some point.

Developers for a new housing complex near Badger Mountain set aside a few parcels to sell to school districts, Busey said. Richland intended to buy one of the parcels to eventually build a school for kids moving into the fast-growing south Richland area.

"We made a decision not to purchase (the land) right now," Busey said. "We decided to watch and wait."

Next door, in the Kiona-Benton City School District, officials worry that the layoffs will further contribute to their enrollment woes.

Like many other small districts in the Mid-Columbia, they have experienced stagnant or slightly declining enrollment for years.

"We're trying to identify the number of families who work out there to see what the possible impact (of their moving away) would be," said Superintendent Rom Castilleja.

The district has shrunk by about 50 students a year for several years.

This year, 70 fewer students enrolled than did last year.

Those numbers are too close to point at Hanford layoffs as their only cause. But if families who are out of work start leaving, the impact is worrisome, Castilleja said. Each student brings about $5,000 in state money.

Few families seem to be leaving Pasco -- the district grew by 500 students this year, said spokeswoman Leslee Caul.

While that number is slightly lower than it has been in the last few years, it still is enough to fill an elementary school just with new kids.

"We haven't seen a (noticeable) decrease," Caul said. "Although that could just be delayed."

District officials have spent little time worrying about the effects of Hanford layoffs, Caul said.

They're too busy coming up with ways to pack more and more students into existing schools.

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