Enrollments jump in Tri-City school districts

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldOctober 11, 2013 

Tri-City schools continue to grow, but not necessarily how school officials expect.

The Pasco and Kennewick school districts both saw larger influxes of students than expected this year, according to the most recent enrollment tallies.

Pasco has 618 more students than it did at this same time last year. Kennewick has about 360 to 400 more.

Meanwhile, Richland schools added almost 200 students compared with October 2012, district administrators said. While that number is on par with the growth seen in the past few years, it's about 40 students less than planned for.

All three districts either are building new schools or making plans to do so in the next few years. Now the districts have to contend with the possibility that those plans, from building schedules to the size of schools, may need to change.

"We don't want to be too aggressive because there are other things we need to take care of," said Kennewick School Board President Dawn Adams during a meeting this week.

Districts are required to report official enrollment tallies to the state this month. The state uses student enrollment numbers to determine how much money to provide to the districts.

Pasco

Pasco has grown by leaps and bounds since 2000, sometimes adding more than 900 students year-to-year. That's contributed to school overcrowding, with three elementary schools having more than 900 students -- a size usually more associated with large middle schools.

Ruth Livingston Elementary School has a regimented schedule to get all the classes through lunch and special rules, including a mandatory 10-minute quiet time to make sure the kids actually eat their food during their 20-minute lunchtime. A reward system is in place for well-behaved classes.

The district asked voters to approve a $46.8 million bond in February that will build three new elementary schools in the next two years. And school officials thought a reprieve was coming: Growth had slowed in the past few years. About 361 additional students showed up to class in fall 2012, the smallest increase in more than a decade.

This year's growth throws a wrench in the district's plans, though. Pasco Superintendent Saundra Hill said even demographers hired to project student enrollment didn't expect such sustained growth, and the new elementary schools may do even less to ease cramped classrooms.

"With over 600 more kids this year, it keeps me awake at night," she said.

Pasco's facility planning committee suggested last year that a new bond could be necessary in 2017. Hill said the committee will meet again this year, but couldn't say whether it would recommend accelerating that timeline.

Kennewick

Kennewick schools have seen larger-than-expected kindergarten classes the past two years. October enrollment counts aren't yet ready, but earlier estimates still show 17,185 students in the district -- almost 250 more than budgeted for, officials said.

The school board reviewed enrollment projections and possible building projects during a review of long-range facility planning Wednesday. Despite an unexpected boom in kindergartners, district officials and board members agreed on a middle-of-the-road view of future enrollment.

"We're not ready to commit (to aggressive growth)," Superintendent Dave Bond said. "It's been two years and we're still not sure."

Regardless, more space is needed now. There are 95 portable classrooms in use throughout the district, almost half of them -- the equivalent of about two full-size schools -- at the elementary schools, Bond said. Space is tight and some paraeducators have to work with students in hallways.

"We probably should have put another elementary school in the last bond (in 2008)," Bond said, explaining the district "didn't want to build a school we didn't need and have the public asking us, 'Why did you have us pay for that?' "

Kennewick school officials expect to propose a bond to go before voters in February 2015 to renovate some schools and build new ones. Board members debated whether to start building larger schools, which pits economics against educational quality.

"The more kids you get, the more you lose that personal touch," Assistant Superintendent Greg Fancher told the school board this week.

But he added that the current size of elementary schools in Kennewick, up to 500 students, isn't enough to meet enrollment needs.

Richland

Richland School Board Chairman Rick Jansons isn't concerned about his district missing the mark on its enrollment projections, he said.

The district is scheduled to open one new elementary school in south Richland and rebuild three in central Richland during the next few years with proceeds from a $98 million bond. A new middle school will be built a few years after that. The bond projects should help crowding in other south Richland and West Richland schools, which are experiencing the most growth.

The below-average jump in enrollment this year provides the benefit of starting to accommodate full-day kindergarten and class size reduction, Jansons said. Neither state initiative will increase the number of students but they will increase the demand for classroom space.

Kennewick and Pasco school officials are concerned about how they'll find the space for those efforts. Richland was able to anticipate those needs and has planned for them in rebuilding the three central Richland schools -- Lewis & Clark, Sacajawea and Marcus Whitman, Jansons said.

"We have surge capacity," he said.

Another bond will be needed in the future, he said, though several years in the future. If enrollment continues to grow at a slower rate, that means it could be fairly small, paying for renovations or rebuilds of Badger Mountain, Tapteal and Jefferson elementary schools and one new elementary school.

w Photographer Kai-Huei Yau contributed to this story.

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

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