Richland, Washington schools approve 4 million bond bill for November ballot
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Richland, Washington schools approve $314 million bond bill for November ballot

Richland, Washington

The Richland School District hopes to gather enough support in the next four months to pass the largest bond measure in its history aimed at addressing overcrowding in its high schools.

The school board at its Tuesday evening meeting agreed to ask voters to approve a $314 million bond to cover the cost of building a new West Richland High School and a number of other urgently needed projects.

The measure was filed Wednesday with the Benton County Auditor’s Office and will appear on the Nov. 5 presidential election ballot. It needs a supermajority — at least 60% — of voter support to pass.

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If passed, the Richland School District’s property tax rate would increase by about $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value. The bonds would mature and be paid off over 20 years.

The measure passed unanimously, 4-0, with board chairman Rick Jansons, vice chairman Jill Oldson and board members Bonnie Mitchell and Katrina Waters in support. Board member Chelsie Beck was not present.

Now is a critical time for advocates of building new schools. Gathering enough support in a short time will be “a tall order,” Jansons said, but he believes there is a real appetite for the proposed projects.

“If it doesn’t go through, we’ll have to reassess the situation and ask ourselves why,” he said.

“The good thing about November is that we’ll get a broader cross-section of voters because there are more people in the November election. And we have a chance to come back in February or April with a different set of projects. If voters say this isn’t the right mix right now, that gives us a chance to regroup and come back,” Jansons added.

This graphic shows the Richland School District’s tax rate for the past 13 years. It includes an operating tax (EP&O) that supplements basic education, taxes on capital projects to fund improvements and capital bonds for new buildings. Courtesy of D. A. Davidson

A decade in the making

For much of the past decade, staff and parents have stressed the importance of building a third high school in West Richland to serve one of the fastest-growing parts of Washington state.

Then the COVID pandemic hit, which significantly slowed the district’s enrollment growth. Richland schools are still growing, but not at pre-COVID rates.

Richland administrators had been poised in recent months to pursue a bond package that bypassed a third high school, favoring smaller strategies to address overcrowding at high schools instead. But the school board ultimately decided to move forward with the project, citing support it had received at multiple stakeholder meetings.

Richland County serves approximately 13,460 in-person students for the 2023-24 school year. Its high school population includes more than 4,200 students in grades 9-12.

The school district has an impeccable reputation when it comes to enforcing school regulations.

Richland has passed every bond and operating tax it has put before voters over the past two decades. Its last bond — passed in 2017 by a 2-percentage-point margin — paid for three new elementary schools and renovations at Richland and Hanford high schools.

In Washington state, bonds are used to build schools and facilities, while taxes are used to fund educational programs.

Unlike taxes, which require a simple majority vote to pass, bond measures require a 60% “supermajority” vote of voters in a district to approve. Local school districts share the burden of paying for new school construction with the state, which provides matching dollars.

Support for school bonds has waned in Washington in recent years, especially with the temporary closure of classrooms due to the COVID pandemic.

For example, in 2023, more than a dozen school districts across Washington state attempted to introduce building codes, and only two met the 60% support threshold needed for approval — Pasco and South Whidbey.

The heightened scrutiny of bond measures has forced some campaigns to think outside the box. In Pasco’s case, bond advocates worked to “microtarget” supportive constituencies and voters while avoiding strategies that would appeal to a broader audience.

What is included in Richland’s $314 million bond amount?

Richland’s third comprehensive high school will likely cost more than $255 million. When the 260,000-square-foot West Richland building opens, it could serve more than 1,600 students.

These bonds will also enable financing of other priority projects, including:

  • The new, innovative 40,000-square-foot high school is expected to house 300 to 400 students, including students from Rivers Edge High School and Pacific Crest Online Academy.

  • Purchase of land.
  • The safety and security projects are already being funded by the 2023 Capital Facilities Tax. The district plans to eliminate the 31-cent capital facility tax levy if the bond passes, which would lower the tax burden.
  • The transportation cooperative’s new 21,000-square-foot facility.
  • Hanford High School Stadium Renovation and New Theater Stage.
  • New tennis courts at Richland and Hanford high schools, track replacement at the high schools, roof repairs, and parking lot and building renovations at Chief Joe High School.
  • New multipurpose room at Richland High School.

If passed, the bill would provide Washington state more than $43 million through the School Construction Assistance Program, for a total of approximately $357 million in deployable capital.

Eric Rosane's profile picture

Eric Rosane is a civic responsibility reporter who joined the Tri-City Herald in February 2022. He previously worked for the Daily Chronicle in Lewis County, where he covered education, county government and the Legislature. He graduated from Central Washington University in 2018.
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