Pasco schools seek bond to keep up with growth

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 27, 2013 

PASCO -- Principal Robin Hay says overcrowding at James McGee Elementary School in Pasco hasn't heavily affected classroom instruction for her students.

The school has more than 900 students, making it the largest elementary school in the district and almost double its designed capacity. Fortunately, teachers still have between 25 and 27 students each, a manageable number when it comes to teaching science, mathematics, language arts and social studies.

Everything outside the classroom -- physical education, music, art, library -- suffers instead, Hay said.

"I can't have two (physical education) teachers in the gym, I can't have 60 kids in the gym," she said.

Growth has been an unceasing issue in the Pasco School District for more than a decade, with enrollment almost doubling since 2000. It's also the primary driver behind the district's proposed $46.8 million bond now before voters.

The influx of students has slowed in recent years, but the district still is absorbing 400 to 500 new students per year, enough to fill a typical elementary school. Assistant superintendent John Morgan said the district has been creative with scheduling to accommodate growth in the middle and high schools, but that can't be extended to the lower grades, which generally have a more rigid class structure.

"We're in a situation now where we don't have space," he said.

All but two of Pasco's elementary schools are over capacity, many of them by hundreds of students. McGee has 15 classrooms based in portable trailers outside the school's main building, something Hay said could be a security concern.

If approved by voters, the bond would pay for three new schools -- an elementary school at Road 52 and Powerline Road, an early learning center at Road 60 and Sandifur Parkway in West Pasco, and a new elementary school next to Whittier Elementary School in east Pasco.

The district also would keep sixth-graders in all elementary schools once the new schools are built. Sixth-graders currently are in the district's middle schools.

The bond also would pay for a number of other projects. They include the relocation of New Horizons High School (which must move out of facilities at Columbia Basin College's Pasco campus), additional science labs at Pasco High School, improvements at Stevens Middle School, and redesign of the bus loop at Mark Twain Elementary School.

The new bond would cost taxpayers 34 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value, or $34 a year for a home with an assessed value of $100,000. The district also expects to receive about $38.1 million in state matching dollars for the projects.

At Ruth Livingston Elementary School, principal Susan Sparks said she and her staff have doubled up the number of students in gym class at a time, moved student music performances off-campus to accommodate crowds, and cut back time for lunch -- with some students not getting in for lunch until after 1 p.m.

"I think the students are getting quality time in the classroom but not in anything else," Sparks said.

The new elementary schools would be the first in the district since Virgie Robinson Elementary School opened in 2005. The district hasn't passed a bond since 2006, when voters agreed to build Chiawana High School in west Pasco. A 2011 bond proposal for $59 million would have built a new middle school, new elementary school and an early learning center, but was defeated by voters.

"It was pretty soundly rejected," Morgan said.

That defeat didn't diminish the need for new facilities, district officials say. The cost of the new bond is about $13 million less than the 2011 version because the district will build a relatively cheaper elementary school instead of a middle school. Interest rates are down, meaning the potential tax increase is about a third of that proposed in 2011. The new schools would use property already owned by the district and a universal design will limit architectural and building costs per school.

"It's a great bang for the taxpayer's dollars," Morgan said.

Even if the bond passes, the district will only begin to catch up with its enrollment, officials say. A new middle school will still be needed by 2024 and portable classrooms, which currently house 6,000 Pasco students, will still be needed at many buildings.

If the bond doesn't pass, the district will have to look at more creative scheduling to accommodate students, such as multi-track year-round operation of schools or double shifting, Morgan said.

Under a multi-track approach, schools would operate year-round, but not all students would be in school at the same time. For example, one student might attend classes beginning in June, another beginning in September. Some students would have to go to school during the summer or would be in school while their siblings aren't.

With double shifting, schools would stay open longer each day, with classes starting as early as 6 a.m. and going as late as 6 p.m. One group of students would have class in the morning and another in the afternoon.

The district polled potential voters last fall via phone calls, the Web, and flyers sent home with students. Nearly three out of four who responded said they'd rather build new schools than have them operate year-round or on double shifts.

Now it's a matter of whether those same voters turn in ballots.

"It's easily as important as the bond we ran to build (Chiawana High)," Morgan said.

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