K-12 Education: Pandemic doesn’t slow new school projects

It’s been an unprecedented year for Tri-City public school districts in the wake of the pandemic.

Though students left classrooms in March 2020 and then started the year with remote learning, the districts’ construction projects have been chugging along.

Richland School District

The most recent state data shows 2019-20 enrollment for the Richland School District at 14,294 students, with 731 teachers.

The district’s general fund budget for this school year is $193 million, said Ty Beaver, the district’s director of communications.

But with unknown tax impacts from the governor’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order in March, the district is proceeding cautiously.

“District officials began preparing for potential impacts to state funding soon after school buildings were closed in mid-March in response to Covid-19,” Beaver said. “This included limiting spending on nonessential materials and services and holding off on hiring for any positions.”

Meanwhile, Richland has been moving forward on the construction projects funded with a 2017 voter-approved $99 million bond — with a possible $42 million in matching state funds.

District staff expect to move into the $11.6 million Teaching, Learning & Administration Center — the new administration building for most district-level staff — in October 2020. The new center at 6972 Keene Road in West Richland replaces the district offices on Snow Avenue in Richland.

There have been some construction delays at the elementary schools.

“The new Tapteal Elementary (a $19.9 million project in West Richland) was initially scheduled to be completed in time for the 2020-21 school year,” Beaver said. “Delays related to Covid-19 contributed to the project taking longer than anticipated, though construction is continuing, and we eagerly await its completion.”

Beaver said construction of the new Badger Mountain Elementary will move forward when Tapteal students and staff move into their new building, as Badger Mountain students and staff can then temporarily move into the elementary school on Sunshine Avenue in West Richland.

“And we continue to evaluate the best timeline for construction of Elementary 12, which would be built in the Badger Mountain South development off I-82,” Beaver said.

The costs for both the new Badger Mountain and Elementary 12 have yet to be determined.

The district is remodeling Richland High School’s auditorium, a project that costs $9.4 million.

“The auditorium renovation has begun with demolition inside the building and the first step of installing a new roof,” Beaver said.

“The project is making good progress and is expected to wrap up in summer of 2021.”

Work is progressing on improvements for both Hanford High’s athletic facilities and Fran Rish Stadium at Richland High.

“District officials have worked with school staff, students and community members to develop the scopes of those projects and develop plans,” Beaver said.

Both projects are currently still on schedule. Improvements at Hanford are expected to begin in spring 2021, with Fran Rish following in summer 2022.

Hanford High’s $6 million project should be completed by August 2022, and the $10 million Fran Rish Stadium project by August 2023.

While capital projects are important, very few students are using any facilities, as the district opened the school year with distance learning.

That was expected to change before the end of the school year.

“The Richland School Board is closely monitoring our county’s case rate so that a decision can be made promptly to bring students back for in-person learning,” Beaver said.

“At the same time, we want any return to our buildings to be done safely, and so we are working with local health authorities to be sure that our efforts to prepare classrooms as well as other school spaces are sufficient as our efforts to assure staff, students and families that we have good protocols and procedures in place.”

Asked if social distancing could be a future factor in any new building project, Beaver said, “The board and district administrators are mindful of the potential future need for physical distancing in schools but have not had specific decisions regarding the issue in future construction projects.”

As for future needs and future bond measures, Beaver said the district is taking a close look.

“There’s strong community interest in construction of a third high school,” he said. “Our secondary (middle and high school enrollment) remains strong and both Richland and Hanford high are overcrowded, so there is a need. The board is preparing to look at the overall picture of our future needs for space for multiple programs.”

That growth could come from south Richland.

“District officials are monitoring a few housing development projects so we can be prepared for future impacts to our enrollment,” Beaver said.

Ray Reynolds Middle School, 9507 Burns Road, Pasco. (Courtesy Pasco School District)

Pasco School District

Pasco School District student enrollment is at 18,410, with 1,328 certificated employees and another 774 classified employees.

The district and the school board are keeping an eye on the $274 million budget.

That means possibly not hiring for vacant job openings and perhaps cutting costs elsewhere.

Still, the district has forged ahead on projects approved with the 2017 bond measure, which totaled $99.5 million and
$44.5 million in state matching funds.

Doug Carl, a former Kennewick School District employee who now has his own company, was hired on a one-year contract to run Pasco’s capital projects department.

He replaces employee Randy Nunamaker, who retired in July 2020.

It’s Carl’s job to see through the remaining bond projects.

And he says so far so good.

Columbia River Elementary, which cost $28.5 million, and Ray Reynolds Middle School, which cost $46.5 million, are ready for students when in-person classes resume.

“Columbia River is slated to open this fall,” Carl said. “Ray Reynolds, we were far enough along when the pandemic hit, and construction workers kept going.”

Carl said when the state started shutting down projects in March to stem coronavirus spread, he and his staff kept working.

“We kind of deemed ourselves essential, and we were right. The (state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) and the governor’s office said we were,” he said.

The one project slightly behind schedule is the Stevens Middle School remodel, with a cost estimate of $39.7 million. Of that, $21.1 million comes from the bond, with a state match of $18.6 million.

“Stevens Middle School is about two or three months behind. We’re supposed to move in over Christmas break. We lost one day at the entire site when someone tested positive, so we shut it down,” Carl said.

Asked about the future of using social distancing when preparing for newer buildings, Carl said that’s a tough question.

“The state just doesn’t have the funds to make bigger buildings,” he said. “Those that are approved, the question is: Does it make future education safe?”

In addition to the new schools, the bond paid for $900,000 in safety and security improvements at the front entrances at several schools.

The one remaining project is transportation.

Nunamaker had previously pushed for a few more bays and new buildings for mechanics.

The district has 162 buses and only three maintenance bays, far fewer than either Kennewick or Richland.

The new facility would cost $3 million.

“Transportation has kind of taken a back seat, but it’s starting to move forward,” Carl said.

The district is looking to cooperate with the Finley and Burbank districts on this project.

“Those two districts will finalize their decision soon. They don’t have a maintenance facility,” Carl said.

With the Pasco area continuing to see growth, the district is preparing to build a third high school.

When that next bond will be, no one is sure, Carl said.

“They bought more land for an additional high school site. Now they have two (sites),” he said.

Kennewick School District

Student enrollment in the Kennewick School District for 2019-20 was 19,429, with 1,131 teachers in classrooms, according to state data.

The district, which is managing a $277 million budget for the 2020-21 school year, is overseeing several large construction projects approved after voters passed a $125 million bond in February 2019.

The biggest is the $87 million construction of a new Kennewick High School, on track to be ready by August 2021.

Additions at Kamiakin and Southridge high schools are similar in that both schools are getting 12 new classrooms and upgrades or additions to their athletics facilities.

Kamiakin’s project comes in at $14 million for about 23,000 square feet, while the Southridge project sits at $21 million for 30,000 square feet.

Both projects are on schedule and should be done in August 2021.

Amistad Elementary School, 123 S. Kent St. (Photo by Chad Utecht)

The $14.8 million second phase of Amistad Elementary is completed.

“Teachers are in the classrooms,” said Robyn Chastain, the district’s director of communications and public relations. “There is still some landscaping and grounds work being finished on this project.”

All of the capital projects are on schedule, with the exception of the Tri-Tech project, Chastain said. “Tri-Tech is running about a month behind schedule due to impacts from Covid-19 and was expected to be completed in September. This does not impact the school year because students are in remote learning.”

Chastain said the current Covid-19 situation “does not change the scope of the projects.”

Although students began the school year in a distance learning model, Chastain said the district expects that to change.

“We are anticipating that students will return to a hybrid learning model sometime this year, with half of the students attending two days per week and the other half attending two days per week,” she said.

“This will meet the Department of Health’s current distancing requirement of six feet. We will also be using non-classroom school spaces during the hybrid model to meet the distance requirement. If the health department decides to reduce the distancing requirements for schools, we should be able to accommodate all staff and students in the buildings.”

The remaining two projects for the 2019 bond are further down the road: building an 18th elementary school, scheduled for completion between 2020-25 and the remodel or replacement of Ridge View Elementary, scheduled for completion in 2024.

As Kennewick continues to grow, there will be a need for more schools.

“When and where a new school may be built will depend on housing growth resulting in increased enrollment,” Chastain said.

The district owns properties for future schools at Bob Olson Parkway, 10th Avenue/Hansen Park and Badger South.

“The need for another bond will be driven by enrollment growth,” Chastain said. “At this time, we estimate we will need to run another bond in 2025.”


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