OTHELLO -- Othello is going to have to move fast to get state money for its proposed new elementary school after a recent setback.
The school district had everything in place a month ago -- money in the bank, plans drawn up and an offer on land accepted.
But when the officials who look out for Othello's health and safety were told where the district wanted to put a building that holds 500 kids, their response was, "No way."
The proposed school site is a block away from tanks that at times hold hundreds of thousands of pounds of a toxic chemical.
The district now is looking for another property so it can get its plans submitted in time to qualify for matching state money. It has two meetings scheduled toward that end -- a facilities meeting at 5:30 p.m. tonight to present three design options, and a 7 p.m. board meeting with a bond attorney Monday.
The already tight deadlines for the state money got a little tighter last month when public safety officials urged the school board to not build the school on the proposed site.
"That school would have been next to our biggest industrial area," said Gary Lebacken, chief of Adams Fire District 5. "It had the potential for 500 elementary school children that couldn't have provided self-evacuation."
That evacuation would have been necessary in case of a spill or -- even worse -- a fire at Multistar Industries, which is just across Broadway Avenue from the proposed school site.
Multistar sells anhydrous ammonia, which is used for refrigeration, according to records kept by the Environmental Protection Agency. The company stores between 40,000 and 360,000 pounds of the chemical in Othello, the records show.
"There are a lot more chemicals being used (close to the site) than people realized," said Dwight Remick, the school district's director of finance and operations.
The Material Safety Data Sheet for anhydrous ammonia says it is "an irritant and corrosive to the skin, eyes, respiratory tract and mucous membranes. Brief inhalation exposure to 5,000 (parts per million) may be fatal."
The data sheet advises emergency personnel to stay upwind of any spill and to wear special protective suits when fighting fires around ammonia.
And there were other potential hazards besides Multistar. Three food processors, which use anhydrous ammonia for refrigeration, and a fertilizer warehouse are clustered around the proposed school site. All four facilities could release toxins in the air in case of fire, Lebacken said.
"We at the fire department don't have the resources to evacuate that many children," he said.
They now won't have to worry about that, because the school board rescinded its offer on the property and is looking for a new site to build the much-needed elementary school.
The district's enrollment has been growing steadily for years. Last fall, the incoming kindergarten class was 370, about 60 more than in previous years, Remick said.
That's why the district needs the new K-5 schoolhouse. Luckily, it hasn't wasted any money designing one that only suits the now-rejected site, Remick said.
"The land around here is all flat," he said. "We can use the designs without any revisions."
Those designs, prepared by Architects West of Coeur d'Alene, feature 24 classrooms and other rooms for music, science and sports, Remick said.
The district has a backup plan if it doesn't find another suitable plot soon. It owns almost 40 acres of land across the street from an existing school -- Scootney Springs Elementary School on 14th Street. That land was meant for a future high school, but the district now might have to use it.
To get as much as possible from a limited pot of state money, Othello would have to submit detailed plans for the elementary school -- including where it's going -- by July 1, Remick said. Counting back from there and considering all bureaucratic hurdles, the district would have to either buy land or settle on using the plot it owns by April 1, he said.
Remick will reiterate the importance of that deadline to the facilities committee tonight and present the three floor plans.
On Monday, Jim McNeill, a bond attorney from Spokane, will explain to the school board how to properly ask voters for permission to use saved up bond money for the new school.
Voters in Othello passed a $28 million bond measure three years ago to renovate their schools. But with the burst of the housing bubble, the district spent about $30 less per square foot than anticipated, Remick said.
Those savings still are in the bank, but voters need to be given a chance to comment on whether they want the money to be used for a school that wasn't part of the bond they agreed to a few years back.
The public input session could be scheduled on the Monday between the next two regular school board meetings, or be incorporated into the board meeting two weeks from Monday, Remick said.
"If it seems like we're moving at a good clip -- we are," he said.
If that pace continues and the July 1 deadline is met, the district would accept bids from builders in July and probably break ground in September, Remick said.
The meetings will be in the district boardroom at 1025 S. First Ave.
-- Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org