Richland school location a worry

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 30, 2013 

New School in Richland

Michael Rung picks up branches Monday in the backyard of his home near Sacajawea Elementary in north Richland. Rung and several neighbors aren’t happy about the proposed bigger, two-story school that would be closer to their homes. The new school is one of several projects in a $98 million bond approved by voters in February.

RICHARD DICKIN — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Several people living near Sacajawea Elementary School in north Richland aren't happy about the possibility of having to look at a new two-story school when gazing out their back windows.

Michael Rung doesn't mind kids cutting through his yard to get to class and likes watching them fly kites and play soccer in the broad field next to the school, he said.

But standing in his backyard, which opens out to the field surrounding Sacajawea, Rung said the planned new school will block his view of sunsets and take away playing fields, negatively affecting the neighborhood's quality of life.

"I'd like the kids to have a new school but they're going about it all wrong," Rung said.

Rung and his neighbors are calling on others to rally Tuesday night at Richland's City Council meeting to talk about their concerns. They've already shared them with the Richland School Board.

The school board hasn't decided yet how to build the new Sacajawea, one of several projects in a $98 million bond. Chairman Rick Jansons said the property owners' concerns will be considered before moving forward.

"Right now, we're just exploring the plan," he said.

However, a new school will eventually be built in a new location on the property and is needed to house students and meet the changing needs of education, Jansons said.

Voters approved the bond in February. It will also rebuild Lewis & Clark and Marcus Whitman elementary schools, build a new elementary school and middle school, replace the heating and cooling system at Chief Joseph Middle School, replace the oldest wing of Jefferson Elementary School, build a home for alternative education program Three Rivers HomeLink and pay for safety upgrades at Fran Rish Stadium.

Sacajawea currently sits at Rainier and Catskill streets, in the far southwestern corner of district property. Much of the land is open and grassy, and homes in the 2000 block of George Washington Way have backyards that open on to the property. The new school will have about 20,000 more square feet of space, providing additional classrooms for kindergartners, computer labs and a multipurpose room that will serve as a lunchroom.

Rung and his wife bought their George Washington Way home in 1985, he said. The traffic on the thoroughfare and the design of the home were marks against it but they were sold on the view they had from their backyard.

Michael Carroll, who lives next door to Rung, said her family has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. Her three adult children all attended Sacajawea.

"We're not opposed to having Sacajawea," she said. "We like the school, that's why we bought the property."

But they and others said the board never indicated the school would be rebuilt in a spot different from where it currently sits. They also didn't know the new school would be two stories tall and the district would use the old building to house other students whose schools will be rebuilt.

John Cox, who lives on Fuller Drive, said the district's proposal would make traffic worse in the area. Cox's neighbor, Lora Rathbone, said some in the neighborhood think having two schools will create so many issues it will depress property values and send the area into a decline.

"One neighbor is already planning on selling because the school entrance will be right in front of their home," she said.

Several residents and others in the district said there is no need for a new school at the site right now because retirees live in surrounding homes. The money should be spent elsewhere, they said, such as for a new school in West Richland. Rung said he'd be happy if the district rebuilt Sacajawea as far west on the property as possible.

The district is required to conduct a traffic study to build the new school and that is under way, said Kevin Knodel, executive director of capital projects. It's unlikely it would be built at the far west end of the property because there isn't enough space as long as the old school is still in use, he said.

Tearing down the old school first in order to build near it or on top of the original footprint would raise costs, Jansons said, as the district would have to bring in a village of portable classrooms to house students. The district also cannot use bond money to build a school in West Richland because no such project was in the bond approved by voters.

Some residents have suggested building one of the new schools and using it to temporarily house students as the rest are built, Jansons said, adding that the board is open to other ideas.

"We don't want to unduly impact the neighborhood," he said.

The district has applied with the city and state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to temporarily house students in the old building during other projects. However, the district has backed off that idea, as the city would have to waive zoning requirements to allow it, Knodel said. The district will likely have more meetings with residents in the coming months as construction plans become more concrete.

"We've got to do a better job of communicating with people," Knodel said.

Regardless, Jansons said the project has merit and will move forward.

"The kids are there now and they're not going away," he said. "(the school) needs to be replaced."

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