Richland School Board members weigh changes to Jefferson Elementary

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 9, 2012 

Concerns from Richland School District residents prompted the school board to consider changes to its $98 million bond proposal Thursday night during a standing-room only meeting.

Some changes were minor -- such as rebuilding an older 1950s-era building on the Jefferson Elementary School campus to house an alternative education program and keeping current students in Jefferson's 1980s-era building.

But another change would be a drastic -- building two more elementary schools than currently planned and transforming White Bluffs Elementary School into a middle school.

Board members made no decisions at the meeting and took no public comment, though they will discuss the bond further and take public comment at Tuesday's regular meeting and another possible meeting before Thanksgiving.

"We do want to put the best bond forward, and I think that means modifications," said board Chairman Richard Jansons.

Board members approved the bond proposal in late August. If approved by voters in February, it would pay for a new elementary school and new middle school in the suburbs west and south of Richland, rebuild three elementary schools in central Richland, close Jefferson Elementary School as a K-5 school and make it the home of Three Rivers HomeLink, replace the heating and cooling system at Chief Joseph Middle School and improve Fran Rish Stadium.

District officials said the bond is needed to meet increasing student enrollment and replace aging facilities. However, opposition to the bond picked up in October, as parents and community members connected to Jefferson Elementary protested its closure.

They criticized the board for a lack of outreach to the community and faulty reasoning for closing it. Some also questioned the need to rebuild any of the schools, saying they could just be renovated. Some residents have urged the board to alter the bond, which would have to be done before the end of December.

Brian Johnson, an architect and consultant to the district, and facilities director Mark Panther did provide a more detailed review to the board Thursday on three other elementary schools -- Marcus Whitman, Lewis & Clark and Sacajawea.

While any amount of money could make a project feasible, they indicated several problems with trying to renovate the schools. Johnson said the schools' load-bearing walls are numerous, aren't built in a simple enough way to make renovation easy and aren't properly reinforced to meet current building codes.

"There's no way to fix that," he said. "You can't open them up and fix it."

There is no clear way to make an addition to the buildings, either, as any logical placement would block windows, also violating codes, Johnson said. Panther pointed out that all the schools' plumbing is buried in concrete, making repairs and improvements difficult. Board members also chimed in.

"They're not conducive to learning," said board member Heather Cleary, regarding the schools' open classroom layout. "They're very disruptive."

Panther also provided a possible change to the proposed bond. The district could downsize the size of the rebuilding projects. More money could then go toward rebuilding Jefferson Elementary's 1950s-era building and constructing a new stand-alone building for HomeLink on land near the grade school off George Washington Way. District officials estimate the bond would then cost about $95.5 million, about $2.5 million less than the current price tag.

Board member Rick Donahoe said he preferred to keep Jefferson as a K-5 elementary school. Cleary and board member Phyllis Strickler said they'd use the 1950s-era building at Jefferson as a home for HomeLink and build another building for the program at the site, allowing Jefferson's K-5 students to remain on campus.

Jansons, however, made the broadest proposal. He suggested moving HomeLink to the Jefferson site while keeping the traditional K-5 students there, but also converting White Bluffs Elementary School into a middle school rather than building a new one as proposed and building two more elementary schools than proposed, one which would replace White Bluffs, in addition to all the other work already in the bond.

Jansons said he estimated all could be done under the current total cost of the present list of projects -- $130 million -- though he wasn't sure how much the state would provide in matching dollars. It would allow the district to eventually accommodate all-day kindergarten classes, provide smaller schools and ease overcrowding at some facilities, such as White Bluffs and Badger Mountain elementary schools.

"This would allow us to keep neighborhood schools," he said.

But all the proposals also raised questions, such as what would happen if schools are built smaller and the district couldn't accommodate growth, or what if the increased maintenance and operations costs of having more schools is more than originally planned.

Strickler had a number of concerns with Jansons' proposal as White Bluffs wasn't built to be a middle school and with how much alteration would be needed to the bond.

"We spent months putting together the current bond package and you're wanting to make a complete change in six weeks," she said.

"If we don't change it, we should drop it because I don't think it's going to pass," Jansons replied.

Throughout the meeting, board members and Superintendent Jim Busey said they were appreciative of all the feedback they'd had from residents. Busey said received more than 150 emails, which he provided to the board.

Jansons said that along with criticism of the bond, he'd also received notes to push forward as planned.

Donahoe said he and the board acknowledge the issue is emotionally charged, but the board has to do what is in the best interest of the majority of the district's students.

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