Richland school bond passing with 65 percent

Tri-City HeraldFebruary 12, 2013 

— The Richland School District’s proposed $98 million bond appears poised to pass, with 65 percent approval as of an initial tally Tuesday night.

An estimated 1,500 ballots are left to count, according to the Benton County Auditor’s Office. District officials and bond supporters were already celebrating soon after the announcement.

“Sixty-five (percent) is a huge number,” said school board Chairman Rick Jansons. “I was hoping for 60 (percent) plus one.”

Ballots had to be postmarked by Tuesday, so more are expected in the mail. The election will be certified on Feb. 26.

The bond faced a number of challenges in recent months from controversy in the district, as well as economic uncertainty from possible cutbacks at the Hanford site. Those issues didn’t appear to faze the district’s residents, officials said.

“We had enthusiasm and the right message,” said John Deichman, co-chairman of Richland Citizens for Good Schools.

The bond will 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 will 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 replace its oldest building, built in 1953.

The district will 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 15-year bond will 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 renovations.

Board members spent months developing the bond, citing crumbling and inadequate infrastructure and population growth in the suburbs south and west of town as reasons for construction. The district currently has more than 11,000 students, nine elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools.

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.

Despite the planning, the board had to revisit the bond only a few weeks after approving it for the ballot in late August. The original bond called for converting Jefferson from a K-5 school into a home for HomeLink. Parents and other supporters from the school blasted the board, saying it didn’t fully vet the decision and failed to seek comment from the affected public.

Board members changed the bond so the school would be kept as a K-5 with improvements to its oldest wing. Other projects in the bond were downscaled to set aside money to build a separate building for HomeLink at a site yet to be determined.

The district also faced criticism for its handling of a cooperative agreement with the Kennewick and Pasco school districts for building a new home for Delta High School, as well as the months-long investigation of Superintendent Jim Busey, who was fired Jan. 22. Bond supporters said those events stalled efforts to promote the bond ahead of the election.

While Jansons was hoping for the bond to squeak by, Deichman said he predicted earlier Tuesday that the bond would receive 64.3 percent approval.

However, both men said the bond did face challenges.

“It’s really amazing we see so much support,” Jansons said. “I’m just ecstatic.”

Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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