Transportation facility builds momentum

The district will likely pay close to $800,000 from its capital funds budget for the entire nearly $8 million project.

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WALLA WALLA — In about a year, the roughly nine acres of land being developed off 13th Avenue and Rose Street will be home to the school district’s new transportation and support services facility.

Work began earlier this week on the land, at 1207 Entley St., across the street from Koncrete Industries, to pave the way for the first half of the project: completion of the Southeast Washington Transportation Cooperative.

Through the co-op, Walla Walla will be joined by Dixie and Prescott school districts, and Educational Service District 123 in Pasco, to share the cost of maintaining, repairing and replacing parts for its fleet of buses. As the host district, Walla Walla Public Schools secured state funding for the project that covers 90 percent of expenses. The partner districts help make up the remaining 10 percent through fees.

Through a combination of timing, persistence, and familiarity with the state funding system, Superintendent Rich Carter is getting the nearly $8 million transportation and support services complex constructed at no additional cost to residents.

"This is a strategy that doesn’t force us to go back to the taxpayer and ask for more money," said Mark Higgins, the district’s communications director.

�Replacing what may be the district’s biggest eye-sore had been a priority for the district for many years, but only recently gained the momentum — and the funding — to see it through.

Carter brought experience establishing a cooperative, having successfully launched one in White Salmon School District before taking the position in Walla Walla in 2000. It was his familiarity seeking and securing such a project that caught the attention of Gordon Beck, facilities director for the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Beck asked Carter if he was interested in seeking another transportation cooperative, this time in Walla Walla.

Two years ago, the district started taking action to move its support services building off South Park Street. Home to the district’s food, transportation, maintenance, print shop and other departments, the building began as a grocery store in the 1920s and eventually expanded to hold World War II surplus materials.

In 2007, the district bought the 9.2 acres off 13th Street for about $864,000. Later that year, it sold the existing site of its support services building to the YMCA for $580,000, offsetting some of the cost.

The district agreed to lease the building from the YMCA, which is across the street, for $1 a year for five years, giving it time to develop the new site.

But what really got the project off the ground was the passing in early 2007 of a $19.5 million bond to rebuild Edison Elementary.

The bond, which covered the entire cost of rebuilding the school, secured the district about $3.4 million in state matching money. Such money, which is a type of rebate to districts that successfully pass facilities projects, has in the past been used to meet other district needs.

There was little question within the district that the support services building was among the district’s most urgent needs, and the $3.4 million was committed to building the transportation co-op.

But the project still qualified for 90 percent in state funding, and Carter learned this summer Walla Walla would receive about $4 million from the state for the project.

That money will fund the second phase: building the remaining support services complex.

Carter said in all, the district will likely pay close to $800,000 from its capital funds budget for the entire project. He said the transportation cooperative should be finished by July 2010. Bids for the support services building will go out in February, and he expects the second half of the project to wrap up in September 2010.

"We will be moved out of there by the first of the year," he said, referring to the start of 2011.

Yet Carter’s vision for securing the district’s facilities needs doesn’t end with the bus co-op. He is in the early stages of establishing a regional skills center that would serve high school students.

Although still in the pre-design phase, the district has already heard from several districts that want to participate. Walla Walla Community College has offered land for its location. Like the transportation cooperative, almost the entire cost of the skills center would be covered by the state.

The branch would be a satellite of Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick. Such centers offer high school students more specialized vocational training.

Carter thinks with time, he could also help establish a state-funded early learning center.

"When I don’t have to run levies or bonds, then I have time to work on these sorts of projects," he said.

PUBLIC CEREMONY
What: Ceremonial ground-breaking for the Southeast Washington Transportation Cooperative.
When: Wednesday, 10-10:30 a.m.
Where: 1207 Entley St., off 13th Avenue and Rose Street.
Details: Walla Walla Public Schools Superintendent Rich Carter will discuss the district’s latest project. Presentations include a project overview and time line.

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