Richland School Board looks to start some projects

The Richland School Board is moving quickly to begin projects that will be paid for by the recent voter-approved $98 million bond.

Board members agreed Wednesday to have district staff start plans to make improvements to Fran Rish Stadium and replace the heating and cooling system at Chief Joseph Middle School.

The remaining projects, which include the construction of several schools, will need more specific planning and oversight, but board members spoke about the importance of not disrupting students during construction and being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

"We need to communicate (with the public) moving forward," said board member Rick Donahoe.

The bond received 65 percent approval from the district's voters in the Feb. 12 election. It will pay for the work at Fran Rish and Chief Joseph, a new elementary school and middle school in the south and west areas of the district, replacement of three central Richland elementary schools, replacement of the oldest wing of Jefferson Elementary School and construction of a new home for the Three Rivers HomeLink alternative school.

The projects at Fran Rish and Chief Joseph address infrastructure problems that have existed for years but that the board had said could only be paid for with a bond.

"These are pretty simple to get moving," Mark Panther, director of support services, told the board.

Donahoe and Chairman Rick Jansons expressed interest in reassigning some district staff to manage all the projects, meaning the district would have to hire two to three people to help them and take on their regular duties.

Donahoe said if the district planned to only have one construction project going on at one time, there'd be less need for a construction management team. However, the district plans to build the schools on a staggered schedule to take advantage of low borrowing costs and to avoid inflation.

"We need someone on the ground. A once-a-week meeting (with the builder) won't be enough," Donahoe said.

No exact timeline was set for the construction of the new schools, though board members said they want to get started on them quickly because of crumbling infrastructure at the three central Richland schools and increasing student enrollment in south Richland. The district also will have to factor in how to rebuild the 1953 wing at Jefferson and a new home for HomeLink.

Board members said they wanted to build the schools with the same design in mind to cut architectural expenses. Jansons said he'd prefer to see a one-story structure big enough for 550 students, with the ability to add a wing if necessary. He said he also favored how the district accommodated maintenance needs at Enterprise Middle School with an overhead tunnel system.

Vice Chairwoman Heather Cleary and board member Phyllis Strickler said they're partial to a two-story design, citing a smaller footprint, energy efficiency and aesthetics.

"I like the openness of White Bluffs (Elementary School)," Cleary said.

Kevin Knodel, the district's director of maintenance and operations, said there are costs associated with two-story buildings, such as elevator maintenance, and it can be more difficult to maintain heating and cooling systems in them.

Brian Johnson, an architect and consultant who works with the district, warned the board about restricting themselves to a "cookie cutter" design for all of the schools because of the nature of the proposed site at Keene and Brantingham roads for the school in south Richland.

"You may not like a building designed for that site at Sacajawea (Elementary School's site)," he said.

Students shouldn't be too disrupted by construction. The central Richland school sites are big enough to allow the new school to be built next door to the old school while it's in use. There could be more issues replacing the Jefferson wing because there are several portable classrooms at the site, which limits the available room.

The board didn't discuss specifically how it would keep district residents informed about the various projects as they're built. Donahoe and Jansons said they were interested in having placards for each project on display in the board meeting room providing information and completion benchmarks.

Also Wednesday, the board agreed to award a contract to McPherson Jacobson Executive Recruitment & Development to search for a new superintendent.

The district will pay the firm about $8,000, about half the cost of the last search that led to the hiring of former superintendent Jim Busey, who recently was fired for violating the morals clause of his contract by having an affair with a district employee, for "threats to misrepresent" the district and other allegations.

Jansons said only one other firm submitted a proposal for the search but it was more expensive and would have taken a month longer than the board's proposed timeline to be finished by mid-April.

Jansons said he'll meet with the firm as early as today to finalize an agreement and move forward with advertising and vetting candidates.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402;; Twitter: @_tybeaver