Kylee Genetti was driving down Van Giesen Street in Richland one morning when she saw a kindergartner she knew from Jefferson Elementary School cowering near the 7-Eleven at the corner of Van Giesen and Jadwin Avenue.
She drove by again a few minutes later and asked why he wasn't at school. He said he couldn't cross the street because the crossing guards weren't at the George Washington Way crosswalk, and his parents had left for work.
Genetti, the mother of a second-grader at the school, walked him herself.
It's students like that boy, Genetti said, who she's worried about if Jefferson is closed and they must attend schools farther away.
"What happens when they're walking a mile?" Genetti asked.
Genetti and dozens of other parents, teachers and community members attended a community forum Thursday night at the central Richland school. Some suggested ways to keep the school open and criticized the district for its approach to repurposing the school -- part of a $98 million bond proposal.
Superintendent Jim Busey, several school board members and other district officials listened to the comments and said they would be considered. However, they avoided committing to any specifics on the future of Jefferson Elementary.
Board members approved the bond for the ballot in late August. It covers a variety of projects, with $5 million to repurposing Jefferson for the district's Three Rivers HomeLink program, which serves as an alternative school and resource for homeschooled students. The program has outgrown its location -- a church on the southern end of Jadwin Avenue.
Jefferson Elementary's current students would be moved to any of the other elementary schools in central Richland as part of the transition.
Thursday night, Busey said the board decided to repurpose Jefferson because reports indicated it would have the fewest number of impacted students. Most of Jefferson's students live west of George Washington Way, opposite the school. About 30 would be bused to another school, he said.
"If one of the other schools was closed, it would be in the hundreds (of students)," Busey said.
But community members at the meeting said the district's studies were flawed and factors facing students at each school weren't considered equally.
Others pointed out that while the school's population now is low, it once had more than 600 students -- all from east of George Washington Way -- and more young families are moving into the neighborhood's older homes.
Parents also said the school had risen to the challenge of serving its students, noting that Jefferson Elementary has the highest number of low-income students.
"It seems the teachers at Jefferson have created a phenomenal teaching machine," said Miriam Gormley, who has one student attending Jefferson.
HomeLink parents who attended the meeting said they didn't want to break up the community and added that Jefferson is too big for their needs.
"I'd rather we be cramped at the church a little longer than move this program out," said Cristi Hamilton, who has two children in HomeLink and another at Hanford High School.
Others criticized the board for not engaging the community in its decision about the school's future.
Kelly Withers, who has two students attending the school, said her decision to move into the neighborhood was based largely on Jefferson Elementary being nearby. Her children are able to walk to school on their own for the first time, and she was sometime emotional when criticizing Busey and the district for describing the school's fate as a repurposing rather than a closure.
"If it's not a K-5 school, you're closing it. Don't mince words," she said.
Busey acknowledged the lack of communication with Jefferson's community was a shortfall.
"We should have done more. I'll take responsibility for that," he told the crowd.
Some suggested HomeLink could move in with Jefferson Elementary, with portable classrooms placed on the property.
One woman suggested bringing the district's Gifted And Talented Education, or GATE program, at Lewis & Clark Elementary, back to Jefferson to boost its population.
Others said the district could save money in the bond by reducing the proposed size for the rebuilding of three other elementary schools that are targeted to absorb Jefferson's students.
Busey said while the amount of the bond is fixed -- it's been filed with the county -- there is some flexibility as to how the board could carry out the various projects described within it. But that doesn't mean Jefferson Elementary's fate will be much different, he said.
Board member Mary Guay said she talked with a father of four at Thursday's meeting and understood his apprehension about wanting to know where his kids would go to school.
Board member Phyllis Strickler said she was glad to hear the concerns and suggestions of the attendees, but she added there will be problems with closing any school.
"Busing and walking across busy streets is always a problem," Strickler said.
Attendees said they don't want to oppose the bond, saying it contains many important projects such as replacing the heating and cooling system at nearby Chief Joseph Middle School. However, they can't go along with Jefferson Elementary's closure and plan to rally others to their cause, they said.
"I think it's going to be unfortunate when the bond doesn't pass," Amanda Stegen, a mother of a third grader, said to Busey.
-- Ty Beaver 582-1402; email@example.com