Richland — The Richland School Board said Tuesday it is leaning toward building a new facility for the alternative program Three Rivers HomeLink at the Jason Lee Elementary School campus.
The board met Tuesday afternoon to discuss options for the program. At least 30 people attended the meeting in Carmichael Middle School's library.
The board expects to vote on the issue at next week's regular board meeting.
Several locations have been considered for HomeLink, but the board focused on the Jason Lee site and another at the foot of Carmichael Hill next to playing fields on Wellsian Way.
Most HomeLink parents who attended the meeting said they would rather be relocated next to Jason Lee, saying it's accessible, safe for students and provides room for the program to grow.
"I'm really seeing it as our own special place," said parent Sara Spencer.
A new building for HomeLink, a parent-partnership program serving 400 K-12 students, was included in the $98 million bond approved by voters in February 2013.
The school now uses space in a church near Lewis & Clark Elementary School and River's Edge High School. The board has pledged to have the school in a new and larger space by fall 2015.
But the district has struggled to find a place. An initial plan to move it into Jefferson Elementary School was scrapped after parents at that school protested. Building near its current location poses problems as Lewis & Clark is being rebuilt, limiting land available for construction for at least a year.
Recent board discussions have focused on open space south of Jason Lee at the intersection of Sanford Avenue and Van Giesen Street and land along Wellsian Way near the intersection with Railroad Avenue that features multiple playing fields for baseball, football and soccer.
Many have opposed moving HomeLink anywhere it would infringe on playing fields, citing their value to the community. Building at either Wellsian Way or Jason Lee likely would take away at least one playing field, said Kevin Knodel, executive director of capital projects.
The Wellsian Way site has further restrictions, including a well and utility easements that limit where a building could go, Knodel said.
But maps showing the Jason Lee and Wellsian Way sites showed how a one-story or two-story structure could be built at each location.
HomeLink Principal Eric Sobotta said either location would meet his school's needs, as both were accessible and that he will strive to build relationships with whatever school HomeLink moves next to.
"We used the Jason Lee gym this winter for two months," he said. "Those partnerships will happen everywhere.
Board Chairwoman Phyllis Strickler and board member Heather Cleary sounded potentially supportive of the Wellsian Way site early in the meeting. They pointed out that parking could be improved so that HomeLink and those using the fields would benefit and more suitable restrooms could be developed.
They and a few HomeLink parents also said that building on Wellsian Way could make it easier for the alternative school's secondary students to be enrolled concurrently at Carmichael and Richland High School, keeping them in the program longer.
"We're lagging in secondary focus and need to prioritize that," said parent Christi Hamilton.
But most parents said the traffic on Wellsian Way and the nearby presence of a smoke shop and Jokers Sports Lounge & Casino made the Wellsian Way site unsuitable. Improving the fields for everyone would be nice but HomeLink itself has needs that must be met.
"I'm not sure asphalt is the best thing to be spending on," said parent Cheryl Walter of the ability to pave the gravel lot at Wellsian Way.
Board members Rick Donahoe and Rick Jansons said they also saw Jason Lee as the best of the two sites as it provides space for the program to grow, something Jansons said is inevitable.
"We're going to see more of this," he said.
The board will invite Jason Lee Principal Joe Jisa to address the board about HomeLink moving near the school at the next meeting before a vote is considered.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald