Some parents of Jefferson Elementary School students are opposing the Richland School District's $98 million bond proposal that would close their K-5 school.
Jefferson Elementary would become home to the district's homeschool program, Three Rivers HomeLink, if voters approve the bond in February, leaving four other elementary schools in central Richland for Jefferson's 350-plus students to attend.
District officials are scheduled to meet with Jefferson parents at 6 p.m. Thursday about the bond.
Superintendent Jim Busey said the board's decision to repurpose the school was based on the school's location and how its closure as a typical elementary school would affect the fewest students.
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"Closing a school can be controversial," he agreed.
Parents, however, said the board unnecessarily singled out a school with a diverse and underserved community to benefit students whose parents have willingly pulled them out of public education.
"They're taking something away that the students rely on being right there," said Miriam Gormley, a parent of a Jefferson student.
In addition to changing Jefferson Elementary, the bond would pay for a new elementary school in south Richland; a new middle school somewhere west of Richland; the rebuilding of three elementary schools in the district's core area; replacing the heating, ventilation and air condition system at Chief Joseph Middle School; and provide safety improvements at Fran Rish Stadium at Richland High.
The HomeLink program, which had 373 students in grades K-12 as of last spring, is crowded at its current location at Southside United Protestant Church on Jadwin Avenue.
While home-schooled students aren't part of a traditional school, the district receives some funding from the state for the students in HomeLink. Interest in the program has been increasing and having a dedicated building would give the program room to grow.
Jefferson Elementary would receive about $5 million out of the bond, enough to renovate some of the building for HomeLink. Three of the four other elementary schools in central Richland are set to be rebuilt with more space so they could accommodate additional students from Jefferson.
The whole process of moving HomeLink students in and Jefferson students out is estimated to take about 2 1/2 years.
Busey said the district's choice of Jefferson Elementary for HomeLink stems from its location along George Washington Way, making it easy for many HomeLink parents to bring their children or have them use public transit.
Closing the school as a traditional elementary also would affect relatively few students. Many of Jefferson's students live on the other side of George Washington Way from the school. They would have to go to either Sacajawea or Jason Lee elementary schools which are also on the west side of Richland's main thoroughfare. It is possible some students would need to be bused.
Gormley said she and other Jefferson parents she knows want the other aspects of the bond to pass because they are needed to serve students but the district should have considered how repurposing the school would affect students.
Jefferson Elementary has the lowest standardized test scores among Richland's elementary schools and more than 60 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price lunches -- the highest of any other Richland elementary, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Gormley said the school serves a significant number of low-income students and nearly all of them walk to school. She contends more would have to take a bus and the extra distance could limit how many parents are able to participate in their children's school activities.
But despite those issues, she said the Jefferson's teachers and parents have worked hard to improve student achievement, though their progress may not be as clear on paper.
"We're what we are on paper, and that's not a good measure of what we are as a school," Gormley said.
Kristin Coffman, who has a first-grader at Jefferson and will have a kindergartner there next year, told the Herald closing the school could have other impacts, such as affecting the value of nearby homes. She said she never expected the district to close Jefferson.
"It's always been one of those things they talk about but never came about," she said.
Gormley said she's particularly bothered that the district would take away a community's school to serve home-schoolers, as those students' parents took it on themselves to provide their education.
"You're basically taking an asset from public school children," she said.
Busey has met with teachers and parents about the proposed change and its effects. No teacher at the school should lose their job, he said, because new schools would open. And every Jefferson student would end up at a brand new or nearly new school.
But Gormley and Coffman aren't convinced, and they are thinking about organizing to encourage people to oppose the bond if the school board doesn't reconsider.
"Once we close Jefferson, we're not going to get it back," Coffman said.
Busey said that the bond language approved by the board allows for some flexibility in how Jefferson is used. The board also could still change the language of the bond because the deadline to put something on the ballot is mid-December.
But he noted, "If you choose to do something different (with Jefferson), you'll have to reprioritize the other projects."
-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org