Prosser officials ask voters for new high school (w/ gallery)

PROSSER -- The old schoolhouse a few blocks from Prosser's downtown looks stately, an ivy-covered brick building flanked by tall trees.

But inside it's too small, too old, too broken.

"I love my teachers and my environment -- I just don't like the building," said senior Delilah Zuniga. "It's time for a new school."

School officials couldn't agree more and want to build a new high school east of Art Fiker Stadium. They're asking voters to approve a $41 million bond measure in the Feb. 8 election, and ballots will be mailed Wednesday.

If the bond passes, the state will give the district $23 million in matching money for the $64 million project.

The 20-year bond would be repaid with a property tax levy starting at $2.49 per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $249 per year for a $100,000 home. But because an existing bond for the city's middle school is about to expire, property owners would only see an additional $1.13 per $1,000 over what they're paying this year, or $113 a year for a $100,000 home.

The district tried to replace the high school with a 2005 bond measure that failed by a great margin. Three years later, officials were ready to try again, but pulled the measure when the economy started tanking.

Prosser Superintendent Ray Tolcacher said now is the time to tackle this project because construction costs are low and the recession has pushed down interest rates.

Those factors together would save voters about $5 million from an estimate prepared in 2008, Tolcacher said.

Tolcacher believes the 2005 measure failed partly because the district also sought money for repairs or upgrades to other buildings. This time, the district just wants a new high school.

Crowded old school

Stepping inside the old building at the start of lunch break last week made it easy to see the problems. Nearly 900 students flooded hallways built in 1936 for 500. A staircase near the principal's office was a bottleneck, with students squeezing past each other on their way to a cafeteria doubling as a gym.

Kids came streaming in from an old church building across the street that the district bought two years ago. Special education, language arts and drama classes are held in the sanctuary and church basement.

Portable classrooms, up to two blocks away, also disgorged students, who have to "powerwalk to get to lunch on time," said student Trisha Taylor.

Every nook and cranny of the main building is used.

A student leadership class meets in the bandroom, instruments piled behind them.

Backpacks lined the hallway in the science wing. There's not enough room in the classrooms for students, desks and bags at the same time, explained Principal Kevin Lusk.

In the chemistry lab, desks were pushed together in the middle of the room to make a little more space at lab stations. Even that isn't enough room sometimes.

"We're packed," said chemistry teacher Ben Koch. "When you get 30 kids in here and you have an experiment with Bunsen burners, they're going to crowd around the experiments. I can't see what they're doing and I have to split the class in two."

That means fewer experiments, and Koch said he can't offer extra lessons that would help future college science majors.

In a way, Koch is lucky -- he's the only science teacher with a room where the Bunsen burners work at all.

The gas lines had to be shut off long ago in the other labs for safety reasons, Lusk said.

Broken old school

Math and economics classes need computers, but Prosser High was built when people used slide rules. Now bundles of power strips, electrical cords and data cables hang from desks to handle computers.

In the art room, stains on the ceiling tell a sad tale. A roof leak destroyed students' carefully assembled art projects.

Elsewhere, few showers in the boys' locker room still work. "You always have to wait in line and then you're late for classes," said junior Juan Valencia.

And while Valencia is eligible for free lunches at school, he often can't take advantage because the line in the crammed cafeteria, called the multipurpose room, is too long.

The so-called MPR room also is falling apart.

"We were running in the MPR during gym class when a tile from the ceiling came down," Valencia said, pointing at missing chunks of plaster above.

Delay the project?

But would Prosser, which lost 250 jobs when the ConAgra plant shut down last year, save money by instead fixing the old school?

"Building a brand new school only costs $3 million more than remodeling and modernizing the old one," said Steve McNutt, principal architect at NAC Architecture, whose firm reviewed the project. He's overseen big school remodels in Spokane and Ellensburg and built new schools all over the state.

And a remodeled school would have no room for future expansion nor solve parking issues at the downtown campus, he said.

What about waiting until taxpayers' finances aren't spread so thin?

The burst of the housing bubble drove down construction costs by at least 10 percent last year, said Doug Nichols, director of the nonprofit Construction Services Group, which audits school construction projects for the state. He reviewed Prosser's plan to make sure the district only asked for what it needed.

Although nobody likes paying more taxes, there's been little vocal opposition to the measure, Tolcacher said. But there is some.

"Right now is a terrible time," said Sherry Harvey. "We care about education but we can't afford this stimulus."

Harvey is a key member of the Rattlesnake Ridge Liberty Brigade, an anti-tax group in Prosser, but she said she was speaking only for herself and "some other concerned citizens." The group will take no official stand on the bond measure because its members were split on the issue, she said.

But Harvey and others who oppose the new school will erect lawn signs along Wine Country Road in time for the election, she said.

The Prosser City Council has endorsed the bond measure. A citizens committee led by Paul Fredericks is going door to door to explain the need, and many businesses have posted signs backing the bond.

The new school

McNutt, the architect, said the new school would have about 160,000 square feet of space, ideal for the 1,000 students the district expects in 10 years.

In 20 years, when state projections expect 1,150 high school students in Prosser, the classrooms would be maxed out.

But all the district would have to do then is add classrooms, not the much more expensive gyms, auditorium space or commons areas, McNutt said.

If the bond measure passes, architects will meet with teachers to flesh out final designs this spring. Detailed plans would be drawn up this fall and the project would go out to bid in July 2012.

Students would first roam the halls in the fall of 2014.

The ivy-covered old building on Prosser Avenue would be put to new uses, and the project budget includes $1.8 million for remodeling it.

If a new school is built, the district likely will raze the portable classrooms clustered around the old school, move its administrative offices into the main building, use the gyms as community centers and welcome a new tenant -- Columbia Basin College.

The college could move in rent-free and just pay its share of the maintenance and utilities, Tolcacher said. That would provide a needed resource in Prosser.

CBC would offer welding, automotive and agricultural diesel programs in Prosser, said Rich Cummins, the college's president. It also would use classroom spaces for other courses, depending on demand.

"This is a great opportunity to get plunked down in the heart of a community that has asked us to come," Cummins said.

* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com