Richland School District seeks $98M bond for school repairs, expansions

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 28, 2013 

RICHLAND -- Every day before students arrive at Chief Joseph Middle School in Richland, custodians check the temperatures in each classroom.

Principal Jon Lobdell said this has been the routine for years at the school on the corner of Jadwin Way and Wilson Street. Regardless of the time of year, Chief Joseph's decades-old heating and cooling system is usually on the fritz, leading to discomfort for students and teachers.

"It'll be 70 degrees or 80 degrees in one room and the room next door is struggling to stay above 60 degrees," he said.

Failing and outdated infrastructure was one of the reasons the Richland School Board is asking taxpayers to approve a $98 million bond. The district also has growing pains in its suburban schools west and south of the city of Richland, where new housing developments are planned.

"When we have an activity for kids in which to participate ... we have over 100 kids signing up to participate," said Gail Ledbetter, principal at Badger Mountain Elementary School in comments provided by the district. "We do not have the staffing capability to supervise 100 kids during an after-school activity, thus having to turn some students away."

Mark Panther, the district's director of support services, said the district's older buildings provide numerous challenges for maintenance. Chief Joseph's heating and cooling system is so old that any replacement parts have to be specially machined because they aren't commercially available.

The infrastructure of the three central Richland elementary schools -- commonly called "the three sisters" because of their similar designs -- is starting to fail. And improvements are difficult because of how they were constructed, with utilities buried in concrete. Panther said more than $200,000 was spent at Lewis & Clark alone last year to fix problems.

"They're really starting to nickel and dime us to death," he said.

And while the district opened White Bluffs Elementary School only a few years ago, it's already over capacity, along with Badger Mountain. And growth is expected to continue, Panther said.

If approved by voters, the bond would pay for a new elementary school and a new middle school in the west and south end of the district to address population growth.

The bond also would pay to rebuild three elementary schools in the city's core -- Lewis & Clark, Sacajawea and Marcus Whitman -- which are more than 40 years old. Jefferson Elementary School also will have its oldest building, built in 1953, replaced.

The district also would replace Chief Joseph's heating and cooling system, make safety and infrastructure upgrades to Fran Rish Stadium, and build a new facility for the Three Rivers HomeLink program, an alternative school with 400 students currently leasing space from a church.

The proposed bond is the largest in the district's history, exceeding the $77.7 million price tag of a 2003 bond approved by voters that rebuilt Jason Lee Elementary School, renovated Richland and Hanford high schools, and built Enterprise Middle School in West Richland and White Bluffs.

The 15-year 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 expects to receive $32 million in state matching dollars to help pay for new construction and any schools being rebuilt.

Sacajawea Principal Jim Bruce said his school and its sister schools were built for a different era in education. They have open layouts, with several classrooms sharing a single space. That has since gone out of practice in teaching, forcing teachers to use partition walls and bookshelves to separate classrooms -- but noise still is a problem.

The three sisters weren't built with many amenities common in schools today, such as a designated cafeteria. They also weren't built to handle dozens of computers, which get hot and sap the school's electrical capacity.

"I even went and bought a portable air conditioner at one point last year when we were doing (state testing by computer) during a hot period," Bruce said. "It didn't help."

Badger Mountain has 200 students more than its designed capacity. Six portable classrooms are in use at the school, with three of them not having their own restrooms, so students have to travel to the main building, Ledbetter said. Another computer lab is needed but there's nowhere to put one and more students means worse traffic before and after classes.

"It's really tough to get a class of 32 into the computer labe that is set up for 30," said Kelly Nelson, a fifth-grade teacher at Badger Mountain, in comments provided by the district. "Or finding furniture for students ... we pulled a desk out of surplus because we had too many kids this year. It is unsteady and filled with holes where previous students have abused it."

The school board did have to amend the bond in November because of early opposition. Board members initially planned to close Jefferson as a traditional K-5 school and use the facility for HomeLink. That decision led Jefferson parents to criticize the district for not seeking their input, adding that they would work to defeat the bond.

The board responded and reduced the planned size for the rebuilt three sisters to keep the bond at its original esimate but still able to replace Jefferson's oldest wing and possibly build new space for HomeLink. It's not known where the district would build the HomeLink building, but it could be on Jefferson's campus.

Bond proponents, particularly memberes of the Richland Citizens for Good Schools committee, say they expect the district to seek another bond in two years if this one fails. A future bond will be more expensive because of growing construction costs, they say.

Bond election

Ballots were mailed to voters in Benton County last week. They are due in the Benton County Auditor's Office or in a designated ballot drop box by 8 p.m. Feb. 12. Postmarks do not count.

At least 40 percent of the number of voters who voted in the last presidential election must cast ballots for the election to be valid. The bond must be approved by at least of 60 percent of those voters for it to pass.

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