Richland School Board might revisit Jefferson Elementary closure

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldOctober 24, 2012 

The Richland School Board may revisit a decision to close Jefferson Elementary School as part of the district's $98 million bond proposal.

Parents and supporters of the school spoke out Tuesday against the board's intent to make the school into a home for Three Rivers HomeLink, an alternative education program. They also criticized the district's intent to rebuild three other elementary schools larger to accommodate students from Jefferson Elementary.

"I don't see where building bigger schools and putting more students in them is such a grand idea," said Cassidi Gaul, a mother of two Jefferson Elementary students.

Board Chairman Rick Jansons made two recommendations to the board, both of which would keep Jefferson open as an elementary school, and district officials were asked to provide more information for the next board meeting. However, not all board members were convinced the plan for Jefferson Elementary should change.

"Jefferson is not in the right location for an elementary school, in my opinion," said board member Phyllis Strickler.

The board approved the bond for the February ballot in late August. In addition to repurposing Jefferson Elementary, it would pay to rebuild three elementary schools in central Richland, build a new elementary school and a new middle school in the south and west of Richland, replace the heating and cooling system at Chief Joseph Middle School and improve Fran Rish Stadium.

Parents and community members from Jefferson Elementary began voicing their concerns and criticisms about the bond last week.

They said during a public meeting last week that the school serves an important role in the community, which is predominantly low-income. They criticized the district for not informing the community sooner of the plan to close Jefferson Elementary as a K-5 school and also how it reached the decision to repurpose it instead of another facility.

Community member Katherine Cort submitted an analysis she did on the board's decision to close Jefferson, saying it lacked clear evidence that it was the right way forward or considered the effects the closure would have on students and the community.

"The question of whether any school should be closed was never addressed," she said.

She and others made further criticisms, saying the three elementary schools scheduled for rebuilding only need to be renovated and that the district was violating state and federal laws to provide for students from low-income families. It also was suggested the district should look at urging the city of Richland to impose fees on home builders in south Richland to help cover the costs of new schools.

Board members defended their decision-making process, saying they spent months having public discussions and reviewing reports on student enrollment, busing and other factors. Strickler said only 65 students from Jefferson Elementary will have to cross George Washington Way to attend school if the school is closed, compared with the current number of more than 200.

They added that the rebuilding of three schools was considered the best step rather than renovation, after getting recommendations from architects. They also considered other costs of renovation, such as housing students and not receiving the same level of state matching dollars compared to new construction.

"The bottom line of all this is it is cheaper to build new," Jansons said.

But Jansons still recommended two options to keep Jefferson Elementary as a K-5 school:

w Reducing the scope of rebuilding for the three schools and using savings from those projects to make improvements at Jefferson Elementary to house the current students there and HomeLink.

w Maintain the other elementary school projects in the bond as they are but keep Jefferson at its current configuration, in preparation for the state fully funding full-day kindergarten in the coming years.

The board is expected to revisit the matter at its next meeting after members get more information on the space requirements for HomeLink, more formal cost comparisons on rebuilding versus renovation of the three elementary schools and other information.

Community members said they were pleased with the board's discussion on the matter and emphasized they want to support the bond, but that the board needed to be more upfront about its process.

"You're asking for $98 million from taxpayers. They're going to ask these questions," Cort said.

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