Less than three years after Richland voters approved a $98 million bond, the school board is laying the groundwork to ask residents to help build again.
The district planned for enrollment growth and space needed for all-day kindergarten and class size reduction initiatives in the last bond.
But the district added about 1,000 more students in the past two years, hundreds more than anticipated, district officials and board members said, straining both high schools but also some elementary schools.
Board members asked district staff during their Tuesday meeting to prepare information about how to conduct a study and survey, a review of the district’s infrastructure that helps determine how much matching money the state will kick in toward projects.
The board also spoke publicly about when to put a bond on the ballot, potentially as early as February 2017. And board President Phyllis Strickler said during a Herald editorial board meeting that it’s time to search for property for a future high school.
“At some point in the future we are going to have to have (a bond),” she told the Herald in a separate interview.
Rebuilt Lewis & Clark and Sacajawea elementary schools opened this fall with more classrooms than their old buildings, along with the new Orchard Elementary School in south Richland and a new modular building for Three Rivers HomeLink near Jason Lee Elementary School.
The district has also completed the installation of a new HVAC system at Chief Joseph Middle School and the reconstruction of visitor side bleachers at Fran Rish Stadium.
The district has yet to complete two of the projects in the last bond—a new middle school in West Richland scheduled to open in 2017 and a replacement for a portion of Jefferson Elementary School in central Richland for 2018. Marcus Whitman Elementary School is currently being rebuilt.
Savings from other bond projects as well as higher-than-expected matching dollars from the state are expected to allow the district to rebuild all of Jefferson at once rather than just replace its 1950s-era wing. The board recently authorized a feasibility study to study the best way to go about the project, such as whether to save or demolish the 1982 wing of the school.
The study will also examine the persistent crowding issue that plagues Richland schools despite the recent bond projects. Jefferson has among the most crowded classrooms in the district and board members want to know how easily portable classrooms could be installed at the school without hampering future construction.
Modular buildings similar to HomeLink could also be considered for Jefferson and other schools where enrollment spikes.
At Richland and Hanford high schools, there are between 15 and 20 teachers rotating into empty classrooms to teach classes because of the lack of space. Secondary enrollment alone, which includes middle and high schools, is 260 students above the district’s projections, which factored in some growth. Whether modular buildings could be put in use there also will be reviewed.
“I think we thought we had more time, that the enrollment growth wouldn’t be as fast as it is,” Superintendent Rick Schulte said.
The district will need to consider what other projects are needed before pursuing a bond, such as possible rebuilds of Badger Mountain and Tapteal elementary schools and reconstruction of Fran Rish’s home side bleachers, said board member Rick Jansons.
Schulte said the district is due to receive financial help from the state for the study and survey process but not until 2017, potentially delaying when a bond would go on the ballot.
But Jansons said there’s plenty the district could do so it could move quickly if another bond is approved by voters. The district already owns property for an elementary school on Belmont Boulevard in West Richland. Architects can be hired ahead of time to design future schools so construction can begin at a moment’s notice when money is available.
“It will be coming faster rather than slower,” Schulte said of the district’s need for more space.