Richland School Board plans meeting with West Richland residents

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 11, 2013 

The Richland School Board plans a public meeting with West Richland residents after complaints the district is doing little to help the city's two overcrowded elementary schools.

Merle Johnson, who is running for West Richland mayor, handed the school board a petition he says was signed by 265 West Richland residents concerned about the issue.

He told the board this week that residents are particularly unhappy in light of the district receiving more state matching money than expected in connection with a recent voter-approved $98 million bond measure.

"We thought it odd we aren't getting a little more help," Johnson said. "(The overcrowding) is only going to get worse."

School board Chairman Rick Jansons told the Herald on Wednesday the district will have the meeting in the next two to three weeks so residents can come talk about their concerns.

"They have valid needs," Jansons said, but added, "They aren't in as dire need as the schools we moved forward with (in the bond)."

Voters approved the bond in February. It will pay for a new Richland elementary school and a middle school, three central Richland elementary schools to be rebuilt, replacement of the 1953-era wing at Jefferson Elementary School, replacement of the heating and cooling system at Chief Joseph Middle School, safety improvements at Fran Rish Stadium and a new building for the Three Rivers HomeLink alternative education program.

And while the three Richland elementaries are all below capacity for students, they are aging and can't support modern teaching needs, say school officials.

The West Richland City Council also has written the school board about the crowding issue. Council members acknowledged that an additional $6 million from the state to help with construction costs can't go to projects not originally part of the bond.

However, they pointed out that every voting district in West Richland supported the bond, and that Tapteal and William Wiley elementary schools each have 85 to 90 students more than they were built to handle.

"What the Richland School Board needs to understand is that there are nearly 4,000 school-age children in West Richland and more families are moving in," said the council's letter. "... It's imperative that you take action to help our kids."

Though Johnson included the city's letter with the signed petitions, West Richland Mayor Donna Noski said he was not authorized to speak on the city's behalf other than as a citizen.

Jansons said he is aware of the overcrowding at the schools and that Tapteal, along with Badger Mountain Elementary School in south Richland, are next in line for replacement, if voters agree, after the pending projects.

The board considered putting those school projects on the recent bond but thought voters would think it was asking for too much, he said.

Also, Jansons said they expect West Richland schools will have less crowding once the new elementary school on Brantingham Road in south Richland is built. That will ease pressure at Badger Mountain and White Bluffs elementaries, which are more overcrowded than Tapteal and Wiley.

School boundaries also can be redrawn, potentially keeping more West Richland students closer to home.

The district owns a piece of property in West Richland, near the intersection of Belmont Boulevard and Keene Road, for a possible future elementary school.

Jansons said district officials also are looking for a possible future site for a high school in West Richland, though he said it would be years before that project would be considered. "The numbers won't support a high school for at least 10 years," he said.

Jansons said it is important to listen to residents and keep them up to date on projects.

However, he said, many neighborhoods and communities are seeking help with their schools and the district has to take them all into account when considering what's best for the district as a whole.

"It's hard to make decisions when people want their new school right away," he said.

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

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