Richland School Board considers change to school plan

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMarch 11, 2014 

The Richland School Board is considering building another elementary school and moving sixth-graders back to the elementary level because of difficulty in finding suitable land to build a middle school.

Board members made no decisions at Tuesday's board meeting and district administrators will continue to gather information. Building an elementary school would require a public hearing because the $98 million bond approved more than a year ago was meant to pay for a new middle school.

Changing the bond and the configuration of the district's schools would have challenges, board members and administrators said, and likely would rouse strong opinions in the community.

However, there's no land the district has or knows of that is necessary for a middle school and the district's growing student enrollment needs to be accommodated, some officials said.

"I'm not wild about this as a solution because we do need a middle school," said board member Heather Cleary. "But I don't think the public has an appreciation for how difficult it is to find property."

The bond also is paying for a new elementary school in south Richland, the rebuilding of three central Richland elementary schools, the replacement of the oldest wing of Jefferson Elementary School and the heating and cooling system at Chief Joseph Middle School, a home for the Three Rivers HomeLink alternative school program and safety upgrades at Fran Rish Stadium.

The district has been moving forward with most of the projects and is even prepared to select an architect for the middle school project after reviewing proposals.

But a memo to the board from Schulte said geotechnical and wetlands issues and property easements have been problematic at several proposed sites.

Not all the sites are within the urban growth boundary for either Richland or West Richland, said board Chairwoman Phyllis Strickler, meaning they have no access to water or sewer service. Bringing a property into an urban growth area can take years, she said.

There's still time to find suitable land, Schulte said, but the board is bumping against its established timeline for the middle school. If action isn't taken within a few months, the project would be delayed at least a year.

Schulte's memo also discussed moving sixth-graders and building more elementary schools instead. There are more land options for elementary schools and they are cheaper to build than a middle school. This option also would leave enough space at each existing middle school to accommodate growth.

This scenario also means changing educational options for sixth-graders, adjusting attendance boundaries and busing. District credibility could be damaged by asking to change the bond and such a change is likely to lead to some parents and students being upset, requiring the district's process be very open and accessible.

"I would approach it with an open mind knowing change is hard," said board member Rick Jansons.

The board isn't giving up on possibly building a middle school, Strickler said. Land is still being looked at and the project could still move forward even if delayed.

"If we only have to delay a middle school for a year, there are likely other things we can do that are less disruptive (than moving sixth-graders)," Strickler said.

But board members stressed that they need to keep the district's options open.

"I feel like we're being pressured to take any (land) and that's not the right thing to do," said board member Rick Donahoe.

Also Tuesday:

w The district will install sod in the area where the concrete letters were removed on Carmichael Hill and at Fran Rish as a temporary measure until permanent solutions are developed.

The sod will be placed in the shape of each missing letter and will contrast against the current earth and grass, Schulte said. Students will be allowed to paint the sod to further highlight the letters.

School boosters want to have a community event to install a temporary replacement for the letters but that likely would not happen until May, Schulte said. Students wanted something in place before this weekend's track & field jamboree.

There will continue to be discussions about the permanent replacements for the letters removed earlier this winter, as well as other improvements, such as a better gateway into the stadium, terracing on the hills where the letters were and a windbreak between the stadium and Lee Boulevard.

w Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402;; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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