Estimates show Richland schools need $116 million for improvements

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJuly 25, 2012 

The Richland School District will need more than $116 million from taxpayers to rebuild three elementary schools and construct three new schools and other projects, according to revised estimates.

Board members received the update during its regular meeting Tuesday. The estimates place the cost of the projects $27 million higher than the $89 million figure that the school board has worked with. And that figure doesn't include everything the board planned to pay for with a possible bond.

The board has yet to finalize what it could put before voters in a bond early next year, but some members said paring down the project list might be necessary.

"I think we need to keep our economy in mind," said board member Phyllis Strickler.

Board members haven't officially decided to pursue the bond, though they've discussed it for months. Increasing enrollment in the Richland suburbs and aging facilities in the city's core have led the board to consider building three new schools and rebuilding three others, officials said.

In the past, the board used estimates provided by board chairman Richard Jansons when debating a possible bond. Those figures were based on the cost of past construction of similarly sized projects in the district.

Roger Roen, a Spokane-based cost estimator who has worked with the district, provided the new figures. He said he based his estimates on the recent cost of construction of similar projects in Eastern Washington.

"I like to make sure there's enough money to do what you need to do," Roen said.

Roen's estimates indicate the state will provide less matching money for some of the projects than initially hoped, and most of the projects cost $2 million to $5 million more than first planned. And the figure doesn't include $10 million the board wants for property acquisition.

Board member Heather Cleary said she wanted to see what it would cost to finance a $116 million bond, but others said it likely would be too much for voters. Bonds require 60 percent approval by at least 50 percent of registered voters in the affected taxing districts.

Jansons said, "$116 million, at least in my opinion, would be tough to sell."

Board member Rick Donahoe suggested removing the West Richland middle school project. Superintendent Jim Busey said that would trim $33 million from the estimate, however the school board will continue to target the property acquisition, putting the bond near $90 million.

But board members and some teachers attending the board meeting spoke against removing that project because two of the district's three middle schools already are full.

"I think we have an elephant looming with the middle schools," Strickler said.

Strickler suggested removing one of the new elementary schools from the list because enrollment in the lower grades has leveled off. She said delaying either project -- one in West Richland and one in south Richland -- would work, although the district already owns the West Richland property.

The board will meet again in a special meeting at 4 p.m. Tuesday to have a final discussion of the list of building projects and financing options.

Final approval of the bond and construction plan could come at the Aug. 14 board meeting.

Also Tuesday:

Some teachers and parents voiced concerns that estimated costs for the new elementary schools indicated that only one would use an original design.

Board members have considered developing a standard design for proposed remodels and new schools. However, the proposed elementary school for south Richland would feature a design and cost different from similar projects.

South Richland residents will insist their school be different, but the board should insist on a standardized design, speakers said.

Board members explained the south Richland school would have a different design because the lot is irregularly shaped with varying grades, unlike other proposed school sites. The architectural consultant who developed the list said he listed the south Richland school with a different design partially to demonstrate cost differences between a standardized and non-standardized design.

Board members said they would consider the comments and would look at building all elementary schools using a similar design.

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com

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