At least three elementary schools in the Richland School District are overdue for replacement or remodeling, and new schools are needed in growing West Richland and north of the Kennewick-Richland border, district officials say.
The Richland School Board began discussing building needs during a special meeting Thursday night. Three of its elementary schools -- Marcus Whitman, Lewis & Clark and Sacajawea -- are more than 40 years old and weren't built with amenities common in schools now.
"When those schools were put together, they didn't have computer labs," said Mark Panther, executive director of support services for the district.
Board members took no formal action and will consider more information about the district's needs and proposals next month. However, there was discussion of possible ways to finance the tens of millions of dollars in needed construction, including school impact fees -- similar to what's been approved in Pasco -- and bond and levy elections.
According to a ratings system used by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Marcus Whitman, Lewis & Clark and Sacajawea no longer can fulfill the needs they were designed for.
A few other schools and facilities either are barely meeting needs or have significant problems, officials reported. A portion of Jefferson Elementary School is nearly 60 years old. The heating ventilation and air conditioning system at Chief Joseph Middle School is failing, and it will cost an estimated $5 million to $6 million to replace, Panther said.
Board Chairman Richard Jansons said some of the deficiencies at older schools were glaring, such as lack of electrical capacity for computers, but they also lack amenities for special needs students. Jason Lee Elementary has padded rooms for students needing to be held who are in danger of hurting themselves. The older schools have nothing that can meet that need.
"When those schools were built in the 1970s, we didn't serve kids with those needs. Now we do," he said.
District enrollment also is increasing. Superintendent Jim Busey said the growth is manageable. However, the bulk of it is outside the core of Richland, leading to overcrowding in outlying elementary schools. Badger Mountain Elementary has about 650 students in its classrooms each day. It was designed to house 500.
Prior to the special meeting, district officials met with Richland city officials and discussed possible ways of financing new schools and remodeling projects.
Board chairman Rick Jansons said the board discussed requesting school impact fees on new construction in the past.
However, he and city officials acknowledged the difficulties of enacting such fees, as the district serves three communities -- Richland, West Richland and a small piece of Kennewick -- and unincorporated Benton County. For impact fees to work, there would need to be massive growth to collect any sizable amount.
"Even if you charge $5,000 per lot, that's a lot of lots to build a $14 million (elementary school) building," Jansons said.
A bond or levy could be put before voters as soon as February or April of 2013, though board members said district residents would need more information. Jansons said a bond or levy would more likely be successful if the district did not compete with another spending measure on the same ballot.
Board member Phyllis Strickler said she wanted to see more data on how many students are in the district's outlying areas before moving forward. She added that it's going to be critical to decide on a palpable amount to ask from voters, given a single elementary school could cost between $14.5 million and $17 million to build.
"We may not want to go out for it all on one issue," she said.