The Kennewick School Board approved agreements Wednesday night aimed at building a better facility for Delta High School, but not without some reservations from board members.
The agreements, which were approved by the Pasco and Richland school boards Tuesday night, will allow the districts and supporters of the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, high school to approach state officials to pay for the project, expected to cost at least $15 million.
Kennewick School Board members said they were concerned about aspects of the agreement, particularly that it would allow Richland not to contribute financially if the project came up short of money.
"It feels imbalanced," said board member Heather Kintzley. "It's a bitter pill to swallow."
However, Superintendent Dave Bond said conditions in the agreements would give more power to districts that give more financially, including the possibility of building the school somewhere other than its current location in Richland.
Board chairwoman Dawn Adams said having the three districts working together is critical for getting the maximum amount of money from the state.
"So we're marrying for money, basically," said board member Ben Messinger.
Delta High is jointly operated by the three districts. The Washington State STEM Education Foundation and other private partners also support the school. The STEM school presently operates out of buildings owned by Columbia Basin College near downtown Richland.
The districts began working on securing a bigger facility for Delta High last summer. Those efforts came to a halt when Richland board members were hesitant to proceed this fall, citing financing concerns.
That led Pasco and Kennewick school officials and the foundation to tell the Richland board it had until the end of November to approve the agreements or risk being cut out of the efforts to build a new school, including building somewhere else.
Richland eventually signed on after the foundation agreed to backfill the project's budget if money from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Legislature fell short of the total needed.
But while the final documents signed by the districts this week don't specify where the school would be built, they also point out that should state money fall short and the foundation can't cover the gap, Pasco and Kennewick each would provide no more than half of the remaining money needed to build a new Delta High.
Bond added that foundation officials already have been talking with state officials about the project and that the district may not even have to worry about that part of the agreement.
"We might be talking 50 percent of zero, we might be talking 50 percent of $1 million," he said.
Adams said that she was part of candid discussions with Richland school officials and they're willing to do what is necessary, but that getting to this point has taken too long.
"I'm very frustrated we're here in December having this conversation," she said, commenting on the tight deadlines the districts are on to get in the financing requests.
Bond said that while the districts would have equal ownership of the new school, the districts that contribute more to it financially will have more of a say in decisions about the construction.
Despite their reservations, Bond and the board members said it was critical to support Delta High in order to secure its future and so it can continue to be a high-caliber school.
"Delta's bigger than us now," Bond said.
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