Richland School Board apparently to keep Jefferson Elemenary open

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 14, 2012 

Jefferson Elementary School likely will remain open as a K-5 school.

The Richland School Board appeared to reach consensus to reverse its prior decision to close the school off George Washington Way as part of a $98 million bond proposal Tuesday.

But that likelihood hasn't halted concerns about the bond from Jefferson parents as well as other school district residents.

As many as 75 people filled the board's meeting room Tuesday night to comment on the bond and hear the board's discussion.

While some expressed happiness and gratitude that the board was reconsidering its position, there were factions calling for continued consideration of other proposals, for Jefferson receiving further improvements and for a need of compromise.

"I don't think we'll all be 100 percent happy," said Staci West, a member of the Richland Citizens for Good Schools group.

Board members approved the bond for the February ballot in late August. If approved by voters, it would build a new elementary school and new middle school to the south and west of Richland; rebuild three central Richland elementary schools; repurpose Jefferson Elementary for Three Rivers HomeLink, an alternative learning program; replace the heating and cooling system at Chief Joseph Middle School and improve Fran Rish Stadium.

The bond recently came under fire, with Jefferson parents criticizing the board's decision to no longer use the school as a traditional K-5 school and for not fully investigating the proposal's effects and for not reaching out to community members.

After gathering and reviewing more information, board members appeared to agree that most of the bond proposal should continue as planned.

However, there were disagreements about what to do with the oldest building on the Jefferson campus. Some suggested tearing it down and rebuilding it, and others said to tear it down and apply its square footage at other buildings.

"I believe we could house the general education population at Jefferson without the 1953 building," said board member Phyllis Strickler.

Board members also debated where to move HomeLink and how big to rebuild the three other elementary schools -- Marcus Whitman, Lewis & Clark and Sacajawea.

But Jefferson parents said the 1953 building is needed, as it currently houses classes for first- through third-grade, and there's little space available in the school's main building.

"I'm failing to see how you can fit seven general education classrooms into two classrooms," said Peggy Pilger.

Others said the district has ignored the building needs at Jefferson for years and said it was a mistake to not include a rebuilt building in the bond, especially when three other schools are proposed to be rebuilt at much larger sizes. A few added that even with the district's saving Jefferson now, the possibility of demolishing part of the school and not replacing it will threaten the school in the future.

"It seems to me to be a pretext of closing Jefferson down the road," said John Cort.

Even with the board's consensus to preserve Jefferson, not all speakers agreed with the decision. Members of the Richland Citizens for Good Schools group, which is promoting the bond, said the numbers indicate Jefferson should be closed, though "at the same time, students aren't data and aren't numbers," West said.

But the group did say that the board shouldn't complicate the bond more than it already is, adding that many already have concerns about the cost and the benefits they'll see.

"We've already been trying to sell a pitch. Don't make it harder to sell," said Kari Williams, also with Richland Citizens for Good Schools.

And then there were those who wanted the board to consider other projects.

Rich Buel, mayor pro tem for the city of West Richland and another Richland resident, spoke in favor of a proposal made by board Chairman Richard Jansons last week to build an additional elementary school off Belmont Boulevard, as well as convert White Bluffs Elementary School into a middle school. That proposal has been dropped by the board.

"Statistics further show that an additional elementary school in West Richland is warranted," Buel wrote in a letter submitted to the board. "Since the last bond was passed in 2003, West Richland's population has grown by nearly 3,000 people and children now make up nearly 30 percent of our community's residents."

More information was not available at 8:30 p.m., but discussions from the board indicated members would seek more information before making any more decisions regarding the bond. There also was an indication another public board meeting would be scheduled, but the day and time for that meeting has not yet been confirmed.

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

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