Tri-City schools keep growing, officials say

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 10, 2012 

Tri-City school districts are continuing to grow, reporting hundreds more students in classrooms than this same time last year.

District officials emphasized that current student enrollment numbers are preliminary and reliable data won't be available until Oct. 1, when official enrollment counts are taken and reported to the state. Those numbers are used to determine how much funding is provided to the districts by the state.

However, some of the growth is above what was expected and this means young families continue to move into the area, officials said.

Kennewick is holding onto its top spot when it comes to student enrollment, reporting just more than 16,000 students last week. District spokeswoman Lorraine Cooper said that was about 300 more students than were seen about the same time last year, about 2 percent growth.

Pasco welcomed 15,700 students, an increase of about 260 students, or about 1.7 percent. Richland counted about 11,630 students, an increase of a little under 200 students, or 1.7 percent.

Pasco reported a lot of growth in its high schools, but most of the growth was in the younger grades.

Steve Aagaard, spokesman for the Richland district, said there were about 160 more students in his district's elementary schools compared to last year. Kennewick has between 100 to 150 more students in its elementary schools, and Pasco reported 107 more elementary students.

Richland and Kennewick, as well as the Kiona-Benton City School District, are dealing with a lot of unexpected kindergartners, leading administrators to add additional kindergarten classes to absorb the growth.

Aagaard said the growth was what the district has come to expect in recent years and it has been fairly steady, making it easier to plan for. Cooper said the growth won't overwhelm the district's programs but also will make sure there's enough money to provide them.

But the numbers are subject to change, perhaps significantly. Pasco spokeswoman Leslee Caul said the district saw enrollment grow by hundreds of students between the start of the school year and Oct. 1 last year.

"That's why it's monitored so closely," she said.

Cooper added that some of the enrollment tallies for individual grades showed inconsistent numbers, but that was a result of administrators working to determine where each student is in the district.

And even if the growth isn't exponential, it adds up over time. Richland will have a $98 million bond on the ballot in February, which would pay for two new schools and the rebuilding and enlarging of three others if approved.

The Pasco School Board is weighing whether to place a $46.7 million bond before voters to build two new grade schools and an early learning center to help address its overcrowding issues.

And Kennewick may not be far from considering similar action. Three of the district's four middle schools have more than 945 students.

Eleven elementary schools have more than 500 students and two have more than 600 students.

"Our facilities committee is seeking community volunteers with real estate, finance and construction experience to help us re-evaluate our district's Ten Year Facilities Plan this year, which includes evaluating the need for building new schools," Cooper said in an email.

Despite the challenges, officials said growth is a good thing, indicating the attractiveness and strength of the community and its schools. Cooper said that there was some concern that recent layoffs in the area would lead to fewer students, but that hasn't borne out.

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