Prosser closer to getting new high school

PROSSER -- Two meetings in as many days have brought Prosser a step closer to building a new high school.

After hearing community concerns Monday night and discussing further details of the project with the school board Tuesday night, Superintendent Ray Tolcacher said he is ready to prepare a resolution for the school board to vote on Nov. 2.

The school board will decide then whether to ask Prosser voters to pass a $41.3 million, 20-year bond to pay for building a new high school east of Art Fiker Stadium. The school district would receive an additional $23.5 million in matching state money.

Property owners in the district could expect to pay $2.58 per $1,000 of assessed property value for the bond, or $258 per year for a $100,000 home.

But because an existing bond for the middle school expires just as the high school bond would kick in, property taxes would not increase by that amount. Residents currently pay $1.46 per $1,000 assessed value for the middle school bond, which means their tax burden would increase by $1.12 per $1,000 value -- or $112 annually for a $100,000 home.

The new high school would open in time for the 2014-15 school year, Tolcacher said.

Prosser High was built in the 1930s for about 500 students. Almost 900 students attend it today, Tolcacher said. The district has bought a nearby church and set up five classrooms in it to handle the load, he said.

State guidelines practically mandate that the district build a new school, Tolcacher said. For example, the state requires that high schools provide science labs of adequate size and quality to ensure students' credits in those subjects meet four-year universities' requirements. Prosser's facilities do not meet that standard, he said.

Architects working on the project laid out their latest plans at the well-attended community meeting Monday night, Tolcacher said. The latest plans address concerns of residents living on Parkside Drive, which would have been the main bus route to the school under the old plan.

"We went back to the drawing board and reconfigured the access," Tolcacher said.

Community members also wanted an auditorium for music education and a cafeteria, and Tolcacher said both are covered in the design. Students would no longer leave the school for lunch, he said.

Tolcacher argues that now is the time to start the project. The recession has pushed down construction costs and interest rates, making the project considerably more affordable than three years ago, the last time the school district asked voters for money.

A rebounding economy might increase building and financing costs once again.

The funding match coming from the state also is better than it was last time around. The state changed the formulas that determine construction cost allowances about 18 months ago, said Nathan Olson, spokesman for the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

But Tolcacher fears those might be adjusted again as budget cuts are made in Olympia.

"The longer we wait, the harder it's going to be to pass," he said.

Passage of time is a boon for another entity indirectly involved in the project. Columbia Basin College in Pasco might offer classes in the old high school building once the new one is operating.

CBC President Richard Cummins said at the Monday community meeting in Prosser the proposal has been agreed to in principle. He said CBC would share the old school building with Prosser School District's administrative offices and CBC would pay no rent for the classrooms.

Instead, the college would pay a share of custodial and energy costs. Cummins explained energy and maintenance for the old building could be cost-prohibitive for the school district alone. That would then throw up the question whether to tear down the old building, which would be costly.

Having CBC come in would allow Prosser to keep the old building, Cummins said, and would be a good deal for CBC and its students. While budget cuts threaten programs at CBC's main campus, Cummins expects that by the time the new high school is ready for use, budgets will be healthy enough to warrant the extra expense.

A satellite CBC campus in Prosser probably would offer an agricultural technology program, basic education classes and transfer-credit classes for those wanting to attend a university later.

"Right now, we have students driving 30 to 50 miles (from the greater Prosser area) to the Tri-Cities," Cummins said. "This would mean more access to a greater number of people."

-- Jacques Von Lunen: 582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com