Richland middle school delay could mean big costs

RICHLAND, Wash. -- The trouble with finding a spot for a new middle school could be a major issue in Richland, costing more time and money, and possibly creating a big delay to original deadlines. It has the Richland School District exploring the idea of not building a new middle school at all.

"What parents want more than anything else is they want certainty and predictability. So, once you cause ambiguity and uncertainty, that creates anxiety," said district superintendent Rick Schulte.

Schulte expects that anxiety to build. The district has run into one problem after another in trying to find land to build the school. Potential locations are either too small or don't have the infrastructure to fit the budget. The district hoped to have the land secured by the end of next month to target an opening date in the fall of 2017. Now, they need to consider new options.

"We're hoping; we're not giving up. This is still a work in progress," said Schulte.

Staff say if they're unable to find a suitable location for the middle school, they do have another option. That option is 15 acres of already-purchased district property. It's located off Belmont Boulevard in West Richland. However, the problem is that this area is designated for an elementary school.

That land wasn't part of the plan for this bond: It's too small for a middle school. But, if the district went forward with an additional elementary school instead, it would mean reshuffling over 1,000 sixth-graders from middle schools back into elementary schools.

"We're going to have to create more space by moving other kids out, so that means, likely, second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders would have to be reshuffled to other schools. So, if we build one or two more schools to accommodate sixth-graders, every elementary school would have their boundaries adjusted," said Schulte.

That domino effect could be costly. The original middle school plan was expected to cost $30 million. If the reshuffling issue is taken on instead, it could tack on an additional $15 million, pushing the total cost to roughly $45 million. That's about half the value of the entire bond.

"Every school would be affected. Not every student would be affected, but every school would be affected, and as many as 100 to 150 students at every school would be relocated to some different school," said Schulte.

The district knows it has tough decisions ahead and expects to involve the public throughout the process.

"Whatever decision we make is not just based on space and money and square footage, but it's also based on the educational program that's good for the kids," said Schulte.

The extra costs would include the addition of up to eight new school buses, plus drivers. That's about $1 million alone. If a location for the middle school isn't found quickly, the opening date is likely to be pushed back.